Copyright © 2016 by Vladimir Volya
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Huge stars shone like diamonds. How many were there: billions or more? It was infinity in an infinite universe. They were bright, expressive and inviting. They pulsated, directing their lustre to the Earth, lost in the depth of distant galaxies.
“It’s so wonderful here,” said Alexey to himself, taking a handful of soft loose sand and spreading his palm, watching the river of sand flow continuously onto the velvet beach of the Red Sea. He held a cigarette in his other hand. Sniffing the sweet tart smoke of hashish, he felt warmth and a light wave of goosebumps all over his body at the same time. Yes, cannabis was smoked almost constantly here: for breakfast, lunch and dinner. An afternoon ceremony took place in the tent; people, protecting themselves from the hot sun, lay on pillows, looked lazily at the land on the horizon on the other side of the sea and kept leisurely, sleepy conversations going. By the evening, the procession livened and a bonfire was lit on the beach; everyone became more joyful and talkative, accompanying the smoking with noisy and cheerful chatter.
Bedouins sat nearby. They had brought instruments – a tabla, a rebaba and an oud – and began playing rhythmic music accompanied by a monotone singing, driving listeners into a trance. Some clapped their hands to the beat, while others tapped their feet, further reinforcing the hypnotic atmosphere.
Alexey walked over to the small bonfire, the flames of which had begun to blaze cautiously and uncertainly, devouring paper with small branches, giving more smoke than fire. A young Bedouin wearing a large white turban and a snow-white galabiya brought two massive logs and put them on the fire. Alexey gazed into the sprawling flames and relaxed.
“No wonder that fire is used for meditation. There is something mystical and attractive in it,” he thought, and, stretching out his hands, turned his palms to the blaze. His body became warm and he felt the heat radiating from him, the energy of fire.
“Hi, Alexey – did you over-smoke?” a voice pealed suddenly.
“Do you know that hemp is grown only a few kilometres away from here, in the oases?” continued Robert; he was an Englishman who had come to celebrate the New Year, together with other travellers.
There was something in his appearance, funny and thoughtful at the same time. He had tousled red hair, ears sticking out in different directions, a straight nose, blue eyes, and a smile ever present on his face and never fading. He seemed to emit constant optimism and confidence. He never lost his temper and he even talked about gloomy things with a smile.
“It’s a local tradition to smoke hashish and bango, and local authorities, fearing to displease the Bedouins, allow them to grow it. Theoretically, distribution and cultivation of cannabis is punishable by a prison sentence, but the police in Sinai are more tolerant than in the rest of Egypt. They’ve also done the tourists a favour. I smoked openly in Dahab, on the streets and in cafés, and nobody paid any attention to me,” said Robert, staring at the flames.
“I don’t like hash,” said Alexey thoughtfully, “but here it’s smoked in a different way than in my home country or elsewhere.”
“Tell me about Russia. What’s life like there?” asked Robert, changing the subject abruptly.
“I love my country, but I don’t like the city where I live. I ran away from that place; it’s not my city. I think I turned into a robot there. It’s a place of constant consumption. You live to work instead of working to live. One day I realised that I was becoming a slave to money and ultimately losing my freedom, so I quit my job.
“I realised that money is just pieces of paper. You can have all the money in the world and still be a very unhappy and unfulfilled man. You can chase all the pleasures of the world like soap bubbles, catch them until they burst in your hands, but inside you wouldn’t have the most important thing – you wouldn’t have your own world.”
“How did you come to that conclusion?” Robert asked him with a grin.
“It’s because of my last girlfriend; I was prepared to do anything for her. I worked just to give her gifts. It was my fault, because love can’t be bought.
“She was everything to me. Our relationship was perfect for six months. Then the quarrels began. She found fault in me for nothing; she was irritated by my attitude to life. We were different.”
Alexey paused. “Shall I open a bottle of Campari? I bought it yesterday in the duty free,” he said, picking up the liquor without waiting for a response.
After opening the bottle, Alexey took two small tea glasses and poured a drink into each of them.
“Six months later, she began to put even more pressure on me,” continued Alexey, taking a sip of his drink. “When she asked me for another expensive present, I told her that I had no money, and she started insulting me. We quarrelled. She left and I never saw her again. It took me a long time to recover; I thought about her all the time. I waited for her to return, but she didn’t. I didn’t leave the house and drank vodka; I tried to understand why people cheat on each other but still live together. Was it because of money, for the sake of the children, because of the opinions of others or because of fear of loneliness? I completely changed my outlook on life. I realised that we have many lies between us, that we deceive others and ourselves because of the fear of loneliness. I realised that the society I lived in was built on lies. Most people are not honest with lovers, friends, colleagues, or with the authorities and the government, but the saddest thing is that the source of all these lies is located within us; it’s because we are not honest with ourselves in the first place. As my good friend said, ‘After deceiving yourself once, you can then deceive anyone.’ If you want to cheat people, deceive yourself once and it will be much easier to deceive others.
“I realised that I didn’t want to live with the lies of modern society, so I went to India.
“For two months I travelled around India. For me, everything was new and strange in this country of contrasts. I lived in Goa for a few weeks; I didn’t stay long because I didn’t enjoy the lifestyle.
“I went to the North where I met a guru in Rajasthan and settled into his ashram, where I diligently practiced yoga. I lived there for three months. It was a life full of inspiration and energy. My body and mind were enlightened.
“Soon after, I became acquainted with the Buddhists. They taught me how to meditate and I became very interested in Buddhism. Two weeks later, I travelled to Dharamsala with them, where we lived in a monastery.”
He recalled the stillness of Dharamsala in the early morning, when everything around was preparing to wake up and fill gradually with the energy of a new day. He had felt the awakening of life in everything around him: in every petal, every blade of grass, in blooming flowers in the field, in the brightening colours of the sky and in the air. This energy had been everywhere and it was as pure and young as milk fresh from the cow. He wanted to enjoy it, and rejoice by raising his hands closer to the first rays of the sun, charging from it as if it were a battery.
Alexey longed for those memories to turn again into reality; then he would take a deep breath, feeling the morning state of euphoria and joy, when all thoughts and feelings are in full harmony and peace with the world.
Robert grinned and sipped the ruby drink in his glass, reflecting the red tongues of the intensifying flame in the fire. He looked into the distance over the calm sea, as if counting the twinkling stars in the evening sky. His expression was out-of-body and contemplative. It seemed that he was gathering his thoughts to say something to Alexey.
He was glad that Alexey’s story and his own attitude to life had many things in common. But there were differences. Robert did not seek novelty in life; he changed life himself, interfering with events happening around him. Changes in life for him were in the change of the outer, surrounding things, in revolution and in struggle, in protests and demonstrations, in debates and discussions. He believed that by changing society, people and the system itself, making them more fair and humane, he would change his own life.
In his heart, Robert envied the fact that Alexey was not burdened by any obligations and could safely leave the city and travel to distant lands in search of the truth and himself. Robert had never had the determination to set off on a long journey. Each year, he went on vacation to different countries, but it was an unaffordable luxury for him to give up everything as simply as Alexey had, and to travel for six months to a distant country. He valued his time because, in addition to his work and personal life, it consisted of his main hobby, a movement against consumerism.
He had come to this point gradually, over several years. It seemed nothing could presage that the eighteen year old freckled boy, quiet and correct, who came to study in Cambridge from Horsham a couple of years before, would join the anti-globalist movement.
Robert had quickly become one of the best students in the faculty of computer technology. Study was easy for him; he was not interested in politics and he did not even think about joining the ranks of the anti-globalist movement. One day, a friend from the University invited him to participate in an informal meeting of the anti-globalists, which took place in one of the dorm rooms. There was a crowd of people in the room; there were not enough chairs and several of them had been forced to sit on the floor. The conversation had turned to the expansion of multinational companies, debt relief in developing countries and preparations for the upcoming summit of the “Big Eight” in Genoa.
Everything happening there was new to Robert. He found these people strange; they seemed like radicals and revolutionaries to him. The struggle with the state had seemed to him to be barbaric and reprehensible. He believed that anti-globalism would lead to the destruction of the existing way of life.
He enjoyed this first meeting, however, and began to take part in anti-globalist activities, where he went out of simple curiosity. After a while, at one of the meetings, he was invited to participate in the protests during the Genoa summit. He agreed.
When demonstrations began in Genoa and a crowd of thousands, one of whom was Robert, peacefully marched through the streets, making their demands, no one thought that soon it would end in violence from the police. Dressed in anarchists’ t-shirts, several provocateurs started to raid banks and shops, and burn cars. Initially, the police just observed, but very soon they began to beat people indiscriminately with batons. People tried to resist the assaults, but tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets went promptly into operation, causing clashes. As a result, the first victim, a young man, was killed.
One policeman hit Robert on the head with a baton. He fell to the ground, but it did not stop the beating; other police officers ran towards him and were soon kicking him. The police stopped only when they saw that they were needed to help beat another person. Shaken, with blood on his face, Robert somehow crawled behind the wall of a house and watched what was happening around him with horror. He knew little and he just watched in a daze as he saw people being beaten continuously with batons.
Robert returned to Cambridge a different person. He was no longer a naïve and gullible young man; a new man emerged in him, and he became more critical to everything happening around him. He changed his attitude and no longer viewed the world as ideal and perfect.
Time passed and Robert became a more active member in the anti-globalist movement. With a group of companions, he travelled to forums and protests against summits. He participated in demonstrations, rallies and actions.
After graduating from university, Robert moved to London and took a job in a small software development company. In a big city like London, a non-mainstreamer’s life was in full swing, and Robert often attended demonstrations, seminars, conferences and exhibitions related to anti-globalism. Over time, he created his own movement, opposed to consumerism.
“We are somehow similar; we are both revolutionaries,” said Robert. “Only your revolution takes place deep inside you, whereas I’m trying to change the world, and my revolution is open. I passed your phase quickly. I didn’t cram my brain with self-analysis and self-improvement, because any ideology without expression is doomed to fail and it will remain just a theory.
“By the way, we have similar problems in the UK. We consume a lot, and unnecessarily, and we live in debt. Many of the people there have debts. They borrow money to buy new cars, homes, furniture and other stuff. In order to pay off the loans, they have to work longer hours, and life is passing them by.
“We consume more and take out more loans. Money is not enough to meet our new needs and people are constantly living in debt, borrowing further loans from the banks. Banks are also short of money, and they borrow more money from the government and investors. The state doesn’t have enough money either, and it borrows more and more from other countries and from its own people.
“Everybody in this system, starting from the ordinary citizens and ending with the state, is becoming bankrupt. It’s because our debts far exceed our ability to pay them. All Western countries are bankrupt. We became bankrupt completely, because consumption lies at the core of our ideology. Firstly, our ideology became bankrupt and then the bankruptcy spread to the economy. Do you think the economic crisis is over? No, it’s just started. The crisis won’t pass until the bankruptcy of our ideology finishes and we change it. We need to create a new ideology that will change the basis of modern capitalism, with its emphasis on consumption and speculation.
“Have you ever thought what is behind modern crises? I’ll tell you. It is the speculative and consumerist use of capital.
“Look at the financial and currency markets. What is happening there is pure speculation. If any politician or well-known reputable economist deliberately announces that the US economy is overheated, everyone thinks that growth is over and as one they rush to get rid of their stocks and shares. The Dow Jones falls immediately; ‘bulls’ dump everything they have in panic and run frantically from dollar to euro; the euro strengthens, the dollar rate falls against the euro, imports become more expensive, local production becomes cheaper and its competitiveness increases in the medium term period. But, in fact, nothing happened; it was just that someone in the Federal Reserve decided to weaken the dollar slightly, to ‘cool’ the stock market for a time and prevent it from collapsing due to excessive ‘overheating’.
“That’s why I think we need a new ideology,” Robert added. “But in order to create it, we should destroy the old, unfair system. So I created a movement against consumerism. We are struggling with large international corporations who are suppressing smaller national companies, and we are up against massive advertising, consumerist ideology, lobbying in politics, and speculative financial and currency markets,” Robert concluded.
Alexey was amazed by his story. Many of the things he heard were strange and new to him; he had never encountered such radical views before. The anti-globalist movement existed for him only in TV reports and he associated it with rowdiness and destruction.
For a while, Alexey sat lost in thought, but then decided to dilute his state with liquor. After taking a sip and savouring the bittersweet drink, he looked down at the beach and marvelled at how smoothly the waves were growing, crashing against an invisible barrier, before gradually subsiding into extinction and leaving foaming water behind them.
On the edge of the shore, where the waves ended their movement and were dissolved completely into the sand, there was a barefoot girl holding a pair of flip-flops in her hands. Her gait was light and floating; her white flowered sundress billowed like a sail in the wind, revealing slender legs and underlining her firm breasts. Her long, dark hair swept across her face, covering her eyes; occasionally she lifted her hands to her face and removed it in an easy, smooth motion.
She turned to Robert, waving enthusiastically, smiling and walking rapidly towards them.
She had almost reached them when Alexey finally glimpsed her face in the darkening onset of night. There was something light and airy in her features, as in her figure and gait. She had a small, upturned nose, thin lips, small ears that protruded slightly from the bush of her windswept hair, and big eyes, playful and naïve.
“Hi Robbie,” she greeted him, smiling softly and displaying perfectly even, white teeth.
“Hello, Kate. I’d like you to meet my new follower, Alexey. He is from Russia. I’ve told him all about my movement.”
“Nice meeting you, Alexey,” she said, holding out a hand to him.
“Please don’t believe him,” Kate added. “It’s all interesting, but his methods are ridiculous. They are reduced to wandering with a bunch of fellows in the London night, spoiling advertisements and drawing graffiti. Advertisements are spoilt wherever possible: at bus stops, in the tube, at railway stations and along the roads. He sprays paint on adverts, leaving strange drawings and calls to stop the consumerism cult. Since Robbie was detained by police, stayed for a few hours at the station, and then paid the fine, he has done less wrecking.”
“I don’t understand, Robert; why do you use such strange methods? Can’t you act more civilised?” asked Alexey.
“How else can we fight them then? We are exposed to constant attacks from expanding consumerism. We are literally forced to buy specific products. I understand that I can’t stop the advertising on television, but advertising on the street and on public transport disturbs me. It infringes on my freedom of choice because it’s intrusive. Why do we have to contend with things that we don’t like in our cities?”
“Why don’t you elect someone from your supporters into local parliament, who could adopt laws against intrusive advertising?” asked Alexey.
“Do you think it’s easy? Only those who have money are elected into parliament. Getting into politics is not as simple as that; people don’t go into it for selfless reasons. Politics is a business. There is a common situation when a man leading a large company, a bank or an investment company, becomes a minister, and then after resignation he takes a top position in a private company. Don’t you think it’s strange? The political system is structured to support and be supported by big businesses.”
It was already past midnight and Robert continued his speech for some time, although the others were no longer listening attentively. Alexey was tired and his eyes were closing. Kate withdrew into herself, sitting on a cushion, embracing her slender legs in both arms and thoughtfully watching the raging flames of the fire. The bright firelight was reflected on her face, and it seemed that she was hypnotised by its natural beauty.
The tent was almost deserted, and the three of them were the only figures on the beach, except for a Bedouin, who was scurrying hither and thither.
Alexey woke and emerged from his hut, which was made of bamboo, with palm leaves for a roof. The sun had already risen high and greeted him with its warm playful rays, spreading energy around everything in its field of reach. He stepped onto the sand and felt the warmth transferring to his bare feet. A light December wind rushed along the shore, rippling the sheets that hung from one of the huts. There were about twenty huts, standing on the shore in two rows on both sides of the Bedouin tent-camp. A few pink clay chalets were located closer to the road; these were considered to be elite lodging. Behind the Bedouin camp, the chain of low mountains stretched along the road.
Alexey went below the tent, sat on dark blue cushions so that he could see the sea, and asked a Bedouin to bring him breakfast. Breakfast was hearty: two pieces of hot, freshly baked flat bread, fried sausages, two balls of falafel, lettuce with onion, cucumber, tomatoes and chopped carrots, plus a saucer of thick rich tahina paste. After breakfast, which was more like a brunch, he poured hot tea into a glass from a small shiny metal teapot and looked out to sea, indulging in leisurely contemplation.
He noticed two camels, modestly lying on the shore, skinny legs tucked under themselves and thoughtfully contemplating the sea in anticipation of their next hike. Their fluffy muzzles were over-tightened with leather straps, and they lazily chewed grass. A seat with two wooden handles was fixed to the hump of each camel, and striped fabric Bedouin cloths were hanging down from them.
Alexey was still pondering when he heard a familiar female voice. It was Kate. She was talking briskly with the Bedouins and, after noticing Alexey, she waved to him enthusiastically.
“What are the plans for the New Year?” asked Alexey, approaching Kate, who was sitting nearby on cushions.
“No Christmas tree, no snow either – only sand and palm trees. The New Year isn’t celebrated here in the same way as we celebrate it in our countries. It’s not a very important holiday for Egyptians. But Robert has gone with the guys to buy some booze.”
“Has he gone to Nuweiba?”
“Yes, to the duty-free.”
“They are so strict with alcohol here, aren’t they?” said Alexey. “Alcohol is only sold in specialist alcohol shops, but you sometimes find strange fakes there. A drink could look genuine, but after looking closer at the label, you realise that a few letters have been changed and the drink is not what it first appeared to be.
“You take white ‘Bacardi’ rum, for example; look more closely at the bottle and you see that it’s written ‘Bekardo’.”
“I like local wine; I don’t think it’s so bad. Especially the young, fresh red wine, with a slightly tart taste,” said Kate, smacking her lips.
Alexey looked away and saw the camels, getting up together on their thin legs as if on cue. A Bedouin dressed in a white galabiya and a red & white keffiyeh was sitting cross-legged on the first camel. The second camel, tied by a rope to the first one, obediently followed him at a distance of a few metres. There was a white package balanced precariously behind the Bedouin, and the whole procession was reminiscent of a medieval caravan, walking wearily along the edge of the shore as if after a long trek.
Kate looked at the Bedouin with the camels and then quickly turned her head to the other side, where two young Egyptian men were sitting on cushions nearby. One of them, dressed in a dark galabiya with a white keffiyeh, was cutting hashish into small pieces with big scissors, over a round silver tray. Another guy, wearing black trousers and a black hoodie with the hood over his head, neatly put some chopped hash onto paper, and then glued it with his tongue, making a roll-up. His eyes sparkled with mischievous fire, and his face broke into a happy smile as he saw Kate looking at him. He began to twist another roll-up with his fingers, and soon after, he had two roll-ups ready in his hands. He got up to approach Kate.
His name was Said. He was of slim build, with a little goatee that gave him the appearance of a comedy artist.
It was obvious that Kate knew him already and they seemed to have a good relationship, as they were constantly joking and laughing. After a few moments, however, Kate changed the topic, asking Said about life in Egypt; suddenly he became more serious.
“We are tired of poverty.” Said started his story with a pensive look. “We live worse and worse each year. Many of my friends are unemployed and it’s almost impossible to find a job. I graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy, but it’s been two years already and I still can’t find a proper job. Sometimes I work as a taxi driver. My salary is only just enough to survive. My parents’ pension is too small.
“You, living in rich countries, can’t understand our problems,” continued Said with a hint of reproach in his voice. “You have democracy, you change presidents. Your government gives you many things, but our government gives us nothing.”
“Why don’t you create opposition?” asked Alexey.
“There is opposition. I am telling you secretly: I belong to it. We are only able to resist the regime because more and more people in Egypt support us. The authorities are afraid of us. Everyone knows that if you are from the opposition movement, you expect arrest and imprisonment. We have tens of thousands of political prisoners in the country and their number is constantly growing.
“But I beg you, my friends, don’t tell anyone that I am a member of the opposition,” he said after a pause. “You are the tourists, but I have to live here. I have parents and a sister, and my fiancée is waiting for me in Cairo.”
“No, we won’t tell anyone,” Alexey and Kate exclaimed in unison.
“The regime will come to an end in a few years,” shouted a suddenly cheerful Robert, as if at a rally. He had crept up quietly without anyone noticing.
Everyone turned in surprise and looked at Robert, who was holding a bottle of beer in his hand.
“Why do you think so?” asked Alexey, curiously.
“The more action there is, the greater the opposite reaction.”
Robert had arrived with a fair amount of alcohol. It was immediately agreed that they should open a bottle of wine. The wine was good and mature. It went straight to their heads, and everybody quickly became merry.
“Are you going with us to Mount Sinai tomorrow?” Kate asked Alexey.
“I didn’t know that you were going. I’d love to come as well. What time are you leaving?”
“We’ll hit the road around ten or eleven in the evening. We’ll climb the mountain and meet the sunrise there.”
Alexey wanted to get to know more about Kate. It turned out that she was born in the south of France, in Provence, from a mixed marriage between a Frenchman and an Englishwoman. Her father was an engineer and her mother taught English. When Kate was ten years old, her parents moved to Paris, but they divorced soon after and her mother took her to London. She spent her childhood between two cities: she had studied in London and spent her holidays in Paris with her father. She was enjoying her life in Paris but she had friends and a routine in London. She studied at the history department of the University of Oxford and had written a thesis about ancient Egypt.
“Do you see the ‘White Bear’ over there?” Kate pointed to the sky, as they emerged from the tent and began walking along the shore.
“Where exactly is it? I don’t see,” said Alexey; for him the sky was just a cluster of stars.
“Over there. Look.” She grabbed his hand and held it to her hand, so that their index fingers were at the same level.
“It was the constellation of Set, the god of chaos and destruction in ancient Egypt,” explained Kate. “Do you see the constellations?” she continued, pointing.
Alexey could not distinguish between the constellations. He looked at the sky, his mind elsewhere. He had never seen so many stars in the sky before; Kate’s explanation made this place, where the sky was clear and the stars were close, more mysterious and intensified its aura.
“I like your point of view,” he said. “When I look at the stars, I just admire their quantity and size.”
They set off late the following evening. For the first half hour, they drove to the mountains in a zigzag way, stopping periodically at local police checkpoints. When they arrived at St. Catherine’s, their group of six got out of the car. They wrapped in warm coats and began to climb the wide road up to the mountains. Groans of camels and cries of drovers waiting for weary customers were heard all around. The sour pungent odour of the camels lingered in the air.
Alexey managed to overcome the first kilometre, but during the second, he walked with difficulty. The entire group had moved forward, but he trailed behind, barely distinguishing his way in the dark. After the second pass, Alexey saw a drover and his camel waiting and he decided to take a camel ride to help him keep up with his group. When Alexey was sitting on the seat, the camel stood up clumsily and, led by the drover, moved slowly forward, swaying from side to side. Sometimes he reached the edge of the road and a dark abyss appeared before Alexey’s eyes; he held his breath and clutched tightly onto the handle of the saddle. He was surprised by the coolness of the drover, who paid no attention to the rocking camel, but just led it by the rope and – if it wasn’t walking fast enough – studiously whipped it.
He rode on the camel ahead of the group, but where the road ended and the steps began, he had to get off the animal and resumed walking. On the last pass before the summit, he saw Kate, rosy-cheeked and wrapped in a woollen blanket. She was sitting on a bench, wearing a tired, sleepy look, and drinking hot tea. They decided to continue further on together.
Here was the summit at last. They had almost reached heaven. Numerous mountain peaks and ridges stretched down and around beyond the horizon – a hazy outline on the background of the dawn sky. Somewhere around here, Moses had received the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
They began descending from the mount. Alexey suddenly realised that he was alone – no one was in front of him. He could just make out, at a distance behind him, the barely distinguishable figure of Kate. After passing a pond with clear blue water and slender trees standing by its edge, he walked through an arch, which was riveted with stones from the mountains and looked like the entrance to an ancient abode. He stopped walking and could hear nothing but silence. It seemed to him that he was in a vacuum. It was a primal silence which contemporary man, surrounded by the sounds of man-made society and civilization, had completely forgotten.
He looked around and saw a bend in the track ahead. Mountain peaks reached for the sky as if they were towers, and huge boulders of bizarre shapes were scattered by the road.
“What a beautiful sight!”
Kate’s voice behind him brought him suddenly back to earth. She came up quietly, as if she had descended from the mountains.
“Yes. Such a splendid view,” said Alexey, as he suddenly felt the warmth of Kate holding his hand.
He looked into her eyes and saw joy and playfulness in them. She gently hugged him and without saying anything, leaned against him. Alexey felt her body against his and wanted to kiss her, but Kate pulled away abruptly, laughing and walking forward, enthralling him even more.
They walked a short while along a straight track in the mountains; suddenly the way became steep. There was a man-made fortress visible at the end of the canyon, tiny and barely noticeable, like flashes from an aircraft; it was the Monastery of St. Catherine.
It seemed they had less than a hundred steps to finish the long sleepless trek, when Alexey stumbled and felt a sharp pain in his ankle. He yelled out, sat down on the first available stone and stretched out his right leg in front of him. Kate, hearing his cry pierce the air, turned around and quickly ran back to him.
After a short rest, Alexey managed to hop on one leg down the remaining steps. Kate walked beside him, helping to support his weight. Even when they got to level ground at the foot of the mountain, he was still unable to walk unaided, so he leaned with one hand on Kate’s shoulder, as they somehow managed to complete their descent.
Soon they returned to the car and, tired from the long hike, drove back to their camp. Alexey tried to repress the pain in his ankle as he stared out of the car window. The area was bare and lonely; only short, wrinkled, red rocks, a scattering of trees with outspread branches at their base and the occasional single stately tall palm tree accompanied them all the way. Homes could be seen from time to time – plain white buildings with straight roofs, looking more like garages than houses. When they approached a small town, houses grew in numbers and minarets appeared along the way, sticking out like spears. Dusty roads, with channels dug deep in the sand, curved from the main road. They quickly swept through the town and before long, they could see ‘their’ beach, with the outstretched roof huts, and the tent standing at the centre; it all looked very welcoming.
They walked along the edge of the shore. Their bare feet were washed from time to time by the light surf, and they left footprints in the sand. The sun had just disappeared beyond the horizon. Lights of a far away city were turned on, illuminating the dark seashore. The evening was calm, and they slowly walked away from the camp without saying a word to each other. Kate, holding the hem of her skirt to prevent it from getting wet, looked down at her feet and scrutinized the foam dissolving in the sand. Alexey turned his gaze away to where the distant city lights loomed. He was limping slightly on his right leg.
It had been over a week since Alexey had come to the camp. Many travellers had left: some had gone back home, others continued travelling. Alexey had treated his injury and sometimes slowly hobbled through the neighbourhood with a bandage around his leg, but most of the time he was sitting under the tent, doing nothing. He had moved from his hut to a bungalow for a more comfortable living environment. This new home had walls instead of bamboo coverings, a bed instead of a mattress, and a roof instead of scattered straw.
“I have to tell you something,” whispered Alexey, then he paused.
It was silent all around; the only sound was of the surf, which produced a monotonous roar, calming down and then growing in a rush to progress and grab a piece of land. Alexey could hear his heart beating fast, and he didn’t want to break the comforting silence. Words didn’t come easily from his head, but he overcame himself and hesitantly said, “I love you, Kate.”
“I love you,” he repeated more confidently, as he took her hand in his.
Kate said nothing for a while as she walked silently beside him, and then, as if suddenly realising what he had said, stopped opposite him and opened her mouth slightly, looking intently into his eyes, trying to read something in them. Alexey leaned towards her and kissed her.
The next day, Kate packed her belongings and moved in with Alexey. Before leaving, she had had a long, dull conversation with Robert. He had told her that if she left, he knew she would return to him later; only he could understand her and she would be lost without him. He had given her an impassive glare, slammed the door and left the bungalow. Kate had taken a deep breath and, after finishing packing a suitcase, moved to her new home, to Alexey.
After dinner, they were drinking red wine and discussing plans for their future.
“Tomorrow we’ll go to Dahab,” said Kate. “Frankly speaking, I am fed up with sticking around here. Let’s stay in Dahab for a week, and then we’ll go to Cairo. I’ll show you around Cairo. I’ve been there several times.”
Alexey leaned towards Kate and softly kissed her lips.
The next day, they arrived in Dahab – a small resort town, popular among divers, windsurfers, snorkelers and beach lovers. The small two-storey hotel where they stayed was near the sea. Its white colours were a perfect contrast to the yellow sand, the deep blue sea and the blue sky. Rooms were cheap and modestly furnished, but with good taste. The only drawback was the shared bathroom on each floor.
They sunbathed and enjoyed the sun that day. Alexey decided to buy a bottle of wine. He returned to the room and opened the suitcase to get his wallet, but it was missing. He looked in the inner linings of the suitcase, opened the outer pocket, searched several times inside all his clothes, but the wallet had disappeared. Alexey could not believe it – all his money, including his credit card, was gone. For a second he stood in thought, wondering what he should do next, before walking across to the hotel’s reception and approaching the middle-aged woman on duty.
“It’s not possible; nobody can steal here. We employ only reliable people,” she said confidently and with a touch of reproach. “Possibly someone from the outside, from the street, entered the room. But for that he would have had to have a key. We have only three set of keys: one is with you, another copy is for the cleaner and one is in case of an emergency. Maybe you were robbed after you had gone somewhere and hadn’t locked the door. Do you remember if you left the room without closing the door?”
“Only to the bathroom,” Alexey said thoughtfully. “I woke up and went to brush my teeth. But I don’t think that anyone could have stolen a wallet so easily.”
“There was a robbery in my room a month ago.” The French accent of Stefan came from behind. He was staying in the room next to Alexey and Kate. “I came home at night, turned off the light, went to bed, and suddenly a noise came from the wardrobe and I could hear somebody sneaking around. At first, I thought it was a ghost, but when I turned on the light, eyes stared at me and I stared at them. I asked him what he was doing. He ran back and jumped out from the window. I found out later that he had taken my money and passport. I was very lucky; he broke his leg and we caught him. Some people are less lucky; their passports and empty wallets are found in the trash.”
Alexey said nothing, just turned away and headed off to find Kate. Soon they were both searching for the wallet around the room, but they did not find it.
“Let’s go to the police,” Kate said firmly.
They marched through the town, passing restaurants and cafés shining with colourful signs and patios decorated with lights and lanterns. Workers invited them for dinner, each of them touting his own restaurant, but food was the last thing on their minds.
In the police station, they were asked to wait. Nobody came to them, even after half an hour. People dressed in civilian clothes were constantly coming into the station and then leaving. They sat inside, seeing these people go in and out without standing in line, and watched the hands of the clock, wondering when they would be called.
Finally, they were invited into a small room with grids on the windows and with a portrait of the President of Egypt hanging opposite the door. A massive oak table, cluttered with huge, untidy piles of paper, stood nearby. A moustachioed police officer in a black uniform sat behind the table. He looked sullenly at Alexey and, in broken English, asked him to explain what had happened. Alexey told him everything and the policeman then ordered them to wait.
Time stood still again. The policeman had a long conversation on the phone and smoked endless cigarettes, slowly exhaling the smoke. He ignored Alexey and Kate, except for occasionally looking intently at both of them, as if he was trying to understand their nature. After more than an hour of waiting, he said that they should return to their hotel and meanwhile he would send a policeman to the hotel to write a report, search for clues and try to find the thief.
They walked through the town, back to their hotel. Staff from the restaurants were hassling them again and they tried to ignore it. Finally, Alexey reacted to the barker’s offer to dine in one of the restaurants. He explained that all his money had been stolen and they were going back to the hotel to initiate a police investigation.
“But your hotel should be controlled by the tourist police, not by the ordinary police,” said the barker, who was dressed in a white shirt contrasting with his dark face. “My friend, I know that the ordinary police can’t do anything for you; the best thing is to go to the tourist police.”
They returned to the police station, where this statement was confirmed. They had to take a taxi, drive to the tourist police and there everything happened in exactly the same way as in the other police station, with men in civilian clothes constantly walking through.
They were eventually called into the office. A fat policeman was sitting by the large wooden table; a portrait of the president, continuously watching the routine in the station, was hung on the wall.
Everything was repeated: the same questions, the silence of the policeman, his intent looks, and the clouds of smoke that filled the room with a mist which hindered their breathing. Then a translator came and he, for some unknown reason, translated Alexey’s witness statement into Arabic.
“Please don’t worry. When you return to the room, your money will be there,” the fat policeman said in a confident voice.
“How will you find the thief?” Kate asked.
“It’s our job,” the policeman again assured them. “But now we need to go to the central police station. We must follow protocol and start an investigation.”
Half an hour later, they arrived at the central police station. It had an unpleasant smell of sweat, cheap cigarettes, recently painted dark green walls and something fried, resembling burnt bread. People were endlessly fussing in the station; police officers continuously paced in black uniforms or in plain civilian clothes. Several times they saw guards leading suspects, some in handcuffs, into offices; occasionally, noises and screams were heard. The whole atmosphere of the station was saturated with intriguing danger and anxiety. Tension was everywhere, vibrating in the air and making the visitors feel uneasy. The office lights flickered constantly, generating a tedious unpleasant buzzing, which crackled sharply from time to time.
Alexey had fallen asleep, when Kate suddenly pushed him and pointed at the young man walking with a guard, in handcuffs. Dark circles under his eyes were prominent; his face was blue and red from a beating, striped with multiple wounds and bruises, some of which looked fresh. His head was slightly down, tiredness and despair obvious in his slow movements. From behind, he looked like an old man who had lived out his life and was slowly dragging his feet in anticipation of its end. But his young face, especially the eyes, betrayed energy and impulses of youth. The goatee was all that remained unchanged from his former appearance.
“It’s Said!” cried out Alexey.
“Hush, Alexey,” Kate said, half whispering and looking around. “We have to pretend that we don’t know him.”
“But he’s our friend.”
“Later we’ll find his cell, but for now we have to keep quiet. Most likely, he is a political prisoner, and if they find out that we are associated with him, their attitude to us will change immediately,” Kate said in a quiet voice.
Somewhere down the corridor, they could hear the sound of keys opening a cell door; they heard the harsh orders of the guard and then Said‘s deep voice, followed by punching sounds. They guessed that the guard was hitting Said with the keys and, handcuffed, he was unable to defend himself, just groan.
A high-pitched moan ensued. Then everything stopped, a steel door was slammed and the sound spread through the corridors: the cell was closed. The guard passed them proudly, swinging a bunch of keys in his hand with the look of a satisfied rapist.
“Come in,” the curt voice of the fat policeman suddenly boomed. He opened the door and beckoned Alexey into the office.
“You stay,” he said, looking at Kate. Alexey and Kate looked at each other, but said nothing.
Half an hour later, Alexey came out of the office and sat next to Kate.
“They persuaded me not to make a statement; they said it would make trouble for the hotel owner. I hesitated, but then I realised that the investigation would lead to nothing.”
“Let’s see Said while we’re here,” Kate said.
They found him immediately. He was sitting silently in a cell; his head was down and he wasn’t paying attention to anybody. He was so self-absorbed that he did not notice as the two of them approached and stood on the other side of the metal bars.
“Hello Said,” Kate said quietly, gently reaching out her hand through the bars.
“My friends… I don’t believe my eyes! Is it really you?” Said exclaimed, standing up and stretching out his arms.
“My money was stolen and we had to go to the police.” Alexey said. “What happened to you? Why were you caught?”
“Someone reported us. I know who the traitor was. Before sending me to Cairo, they want to check me here.”
“Have you been tortured?” Kate asked.
Said did not answer, just smiled and raised his eyebrows. The right eyebrow was dissected; dried blood had already turned into a thin crust. The eyelid below an eyebrow was swollen. It was hard to look at him.
“Alexey, give me a pen and a piece of paper,” said Said.
“Here is my address in Cairo, where my parents and sister live,” he explained, writing quickly. “Please tell them that you have seen me, that I’m detained in Dahab. I think in the next few days I’ll be sent to prison in Cairo and then I’ll be judged. Tell them that I’m not guilty and that I didn’t do anything bad. Tell them that I’ll be released soon because people like me are not held for a long time. Don’t say that I was tortured; I don’t want to upset them. Comfort them. If you have any difficulties or need help in Cairo, please ask them. They will always help you”.
They left the station. Kate’s eyes were full of tears. She did not even try to hold them back. It seemed that the sea of negative emotions, which had collected during the day, now overwhelmed her and poured out.
When they returned to the hotel, all was quiet. Dim light established that it was late and called for silence. They decided not to disturb the peace and walked quietly down the hall. Alexey went into the room and, without thinking, opened the outer pocket of his suitcase. He froze; he could not believe his eyes – the wallet was inside as if it had never disappeared. Alexey counted the money – it was all there and the credit card was also in place. They discussed the situation for a long time, and concluded that the wallet had been replaced stealthily. Kate said that the hotel staff had most likely been frightened when the police became involved, and returned it.
The next morning, the weather was turbulent. Wind rushed through the town, howling, tapping on the roofs of hotels, tugging at restaurant signs and canvas walls of cafés. It beat passers-by in the face with its bristly gusts, knocked them down and filled their eyes with sand. The sea raged; waves rose high and battered the shore, leaving hissing foam behind. Further along, where cafés were located in a row, instead of the stony shore, waves swept over tables and chairs, scaring off an already diminished number of tourists. Waiters rushed to the cafés with clingfilm and covered the tables and chairs, expecting the weather to worsen. Their expectations were soon proven correct and the sky became covered in grey cloud, darkening and thickening before the rain came, which is a rare phenomenon in these lands.
Alexey was sitting on the balcony in an armchair. He watched the restlessness of nature and thought that now would be a good time to travel to Cairo. He didn’t want to stay in Dahab after what had happened. He thought that Kate was too sensitive; she had quickly lost her temper and burst into tears the previous night. He recalled how she had wept, so openly and sincerely, without being ashamed of showing her tears and emotion. He felt sorry for her – such a fragile and defenceless young woman, gullible, unaccustomed to life’s troubles and obstacles.
Kate walked to Alexey, embraced his face in both hands, kissed his head and then sat in the wicker chair nearby. They sat in silence, holding hands and watching the pounding waves of the sea. Kate was cold, even though she had wrapped up in a big sweater; Alexey put his arms around her and held her close, but she couldn’t stop shivering. She still had not recovered from yesterday’s incidents, and the strange weather deepened her melancholy.
“Did you sleep well?” Alexey asked, breaking the protracted silence.
“I had a terrible dream,” Kate said in a low voice.
“Let’s travel to Cairo,” she said, after a pause.
“Yes honey, let’s go to Cairo tomorrow,” Alexey answered softly.
It started raining, lightly and uncertainly but growing gradually heavier. Waiters were fussing in the restaurants; simultaneously, as if by some unspoken command, they rushed outside to bring chairs in, grabbed tables and still-warm shisha pipes. The carpet seller in the nearby shop promptly folded rich coloured carpets and small thin rugs. All the tea, which was displayed in open boxes outside another shop, became wet. The shopkeeper lingered in conversation in front of the store and then suddenly realised his stock was being ruined; he ran around quickly, hoping to salvage at least some of his goods. A street dog tucked in her short tail and ran around aimlessly, hoping to find shelter from the heavy rain. Nobody was waiting for her anywhere and she roamed, wet and hungry, first to one and then to another restaurant, in the hope that she could hide under cover somewhere, and that someone would toss her a bone, but she was chased away from everywhere.
The bus had already been travelling for several hours. Kate was tired of the noisy vibrations of the vehicle and the infinity of the Sinai Desert, and gently put her head on Alexey’s shoulder, trying to sleep. She closed her eyes, but sleep did not come and her thoughts persistently appeared as changing images, like those of a kaleidoscope. She saw a bright image of Robert saying something desperately to her, and then disappearing in the smoke of the fire blazing on the seashore. She felt sad and melancholic, and a nagging heaviness sat at the back of her head. The pain went away immediately, as if after taking medication, as she recalled how she had walked with Alexey along the shore, and he had confessed his love for her.
The sergeant hit Said’s cheeks with the palms of his hands. He struck him repeatedly, laughing, becoming frenzied, and enjoying the slapping. Said tried to defend himself; he covered his face with his hands to stop the blows, but then received even greater strikes to his hands. He cried out in pain and then dropped his hands away from his face.
Soon, the policeman changed tactics. He aimed at Said’s face, watching him lift his hands up to protect it, then he changed direction, roughly tossing Said’s hands from his face to hit him on the cheek with such force that Said staggered and almost fell. The pain was immense: Said’s cheeks burned, his eyes were bloodshot, and he was left gasping for breath, but he could not do anything.
The game did not last long. The sergeant, tired of the strange entertainment and most of all of the disobedient Said, punched his ears with all his might. A sharp clap sounded and Said felt as if he had gone deaf. He started to squat slowly and then fell to the floor. The sergeant, feeling the power and dominance, burst out laughing and grabbed the ear of the fallen prisoner, in an attempt to pick him up. After realising that he could not raise him by one ear, he grabbed both of Said’s ears with his hands, bent over him abruptly and pulled him up by them. Said felt severe pain and a burning sensation; he screamed. The sergeant, as if trying to shut him up, tormented him more with tenacious fingers like claws that twisted his lips, from which Said’s screams turned to bellows.
After Said was pulled to his feet, swaying slightly and looking at the sergeant with bleary eyes, he was abruptly pushed against the wall; the sergeant grabbed his neck and started beating him with the palm of his hand, first his head and then his neck. Blows resounded in sharp claps, echoing in the half-empty room. Said’s neck reddened and hurt immensely. Soon the sergeant, who was tired and thirsty from all the physical exertion, stopped to pour himself some water.
“Will you come to my housewarming party tomorrow?” said a captain, who was sitting at an oak desk writing reports. “It’s also my son’s birthday: ten years old. We’ll celebrate two events together.”
“Sure, I’ll come. Thank you for the invitation,” said the sergeant, with a vacant expression on his face. “Have you finished building your house?”
“Well, not completely. The exterior is not finished yet, but we’ll leave it as it is. At least we are not in hurry. We don’t pay property tax, because unfinished housing is exempt from taxation.”
“Yes, I know.”
“But inside, my house is like a palace,” the captain declared importantly. He stood up and began to describe the interior of the house, depicting the position of things with his hands. “I put a plasma TV in the living room, I bought a leather sofa and I have a handmade carpet on the floor. You should come and see. I had to borrow money from my relatives. I want to dig a pit in the courtyard and make a swimming pool there.”
The sergeant pretended to be listening attentively to the captain; he nodded his head and occasionally waved away a fly, circling around him, which most likely sensed blood and sweat from the gruelling torture of his prisoners. His thoughts were like that of the fly or, more precisely, they were like flies swarming in his head, returning to Said and to how to humiliate and ruin him. The sergeant was smiling at the captain, but his smile was false, his lips stretched so unnaturally that they seemed to tear as if in a tight harness.
Eventually, the sergeant, unable to withstand his inner feelings, turned his head to Said and said furiously, “You’re so stubborn. You’re one tough cookie.”
“Just ignore him,” the captain said firmly.
“I’ll crack him and make him talk, no matter how tough he thinks he is. It’s a matter of principle,” the sergeant said, as if he was thinking aloud.
“Who is your organizer? I’m asking again because I’m giving you one last chance. I’ll count to ten.
“One…” There was a long pause, an icy silence, and Said’s heavy breathing filled the room. “Two… Three… Four… Five…” he continued, rapping out the words. “Five. Again, Five,” he said, grinding out the words and jabbing the bottom of Said’s chin with two fingers. “Eight… Ten.” Said remained silent, squinting at the sergeant. “You’ve used up all my patience,” the sergeant finished, menacingly.
He took a metal club out from under the table and continued his torture. First, he waved it in front of Said and then, pretending that he was trying to hit his legs, made an abrupt upwards movement before quickly bringing the club around to hit him hard on his back, around his kidneys. A sharp pain went through Said’s spine as if he was being electrocuted. He felt as if his hips and lower back were falling apart. He clenched his hands into fists to keep himself from screaming, and crossed them over his chest, barely keeping his balance as he did so. The sergeant saw his reaction, grinned and then, with a sharp swing of the club, hit his leg below the knee. Said felt excruciating pain and dropped to the ground.
For a moment, it seemed as though he was losing consciousness, but after cold water was splashed on him, he regained it. Everything happening around him was perceived through a haze. Exhausted, he could not open his eyes, but could hear some kind of buzzing sound in the distance, as if he was lying in a bathtub. He tried to comprehend the vibration resounding in his head. The sergeant was screaming. He ordered something that Said could not understand. Two guards then grabbed Said under his arms and dragged him. The corridors stretched like tunnels. He looked through half-open eyes and saw the dirty whitewashed ceilings and hanging lamps, glaring with harsh light.
The heavy door of the cell was slammed shut loudly and this, along with the squeaking sound of the locking bolts, made the other men already occupying the cold and wet room shudder. There were at least thirty people inside. They did not have enough space and there was nowhere to sit but on the cold stone floor. Some were lying on old towels with legs bent; one was wrapped in a dirty sheet like a cocoon; some knelt on rugs, as if preparing for Salat; others just squatted on the cold floor and talked with a neighbour. A few, like Said, were leaning against the wall and, as if caught between two worlds, they drifted away into semi-consciousness.
All these people were different. They differed in age, in profession, in their life stories and material wellbeing; but at the same time, they had something in common, besides the fact that they were sitting in the same cell. Their eyes, their appearance, their feelings and the whole atmosphere of the place conveyed something so hopeless, oppressive and heavy, that even the smell and dampness forcefully grounded and held down, with invisible shackles, those who tried to find release by talking or thinking. Despite all of these things, each of them held a glimmer of hope in their endless waiting, an anticipation of change and liberation, hidden deep inside and invisible to others.
The cell was very dirty: cigarette butts, cellophane and pieces of paper were scattered all around. A big box, completely filled with a tower of rubbish, was in the corner of the room, near to the commode. Empty bottles, chicken bones, cigarette packets and other trash fell from it with the slightest touch. In order to comply with decency and keep it out of sight, the commode was surrounded by a piece of one-metre high cardboard. It seemed to be clogged, or maybe the septic tank was full, as it was emitting a sickening stench, spreading a sour smell around the cell, which could only be removed by the smoke of cigarettes. A thin water pipe was installed in the same area, with a small tap protruding from it, saving the prisoners from dying of dehydration while also serving as a shower.
It was getting dark. The sun was setting on the horizon and its rays were playing through the small window. It was becoming cold and damp in the cell, and heaviness and despair were growing in the hearts of inmates along with it. Darkness spread its cover, not only in the sky but also in the hearts of these men. They recalled the warmth and comfort of home: the faces of their family and dinner conversations; a large table groaning under the weight of various foods; the noise of children running around the house; and chats with friends over tea and shisha, steaming with sweet fruity tobacco and dissolving in the cool night air. They dreamed about the freedom of the boundless desert and about the surf of the caressing sea somewhere out there, which could be heard in the distance. It had a soothing effect, like a mother singing a lullaby to her child.
“Son, son, wake up. Are you alive?” A grey-haired old man with a neat grey beard and intelligent, kind eyes, dressed in a white galabiya, was speaking to him.
“Yes, I am,” Said answered in a barely audible voice.
“Take some bread. Eat a little bit.”
Said took the flat bread and started eating it greedily, chewing as quickly as he could, like a hungry dog who was afraid that other dogs would take away his catch. This bread tasted so good to him. At this particular moment, it was tastier than any food he had tried in his life. He felt his taste buds reviving, as if he had woken up after a long sleep. Energy was gradually returning to him and, despite the nagging pain in his head, his thoughts became clearer and the events of the last few days ran through his mind.
Said accepted a second piece of bread and half an onion from the old man. As he was eating, the old man was looking at him with big eyes and smiling. Perhaps, seeing Said, he was remembering his own sons, his whole family and their big house and garden.
“What are you doing here, father? Why have you been jailed?” asked Said, chewing his food.
“It’s because of the goat,” answered the old man with a wry smile. “I have a small farm. I grow tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. I made a field to grow corn, peas and lentils. Everything is for sale; I grow the food and my wife and granddaughter sell it on the market in the town. The harvest is small, but it’s enough for us. We have cattle: two bulls and four cows, chickens, turkeys. I am the wealthiest farmer in our village. My house has two storeys. I have three sons, a daughter and five grandchildren; we all live in harmony. My youngest son has gone to study in Alexandria, the older one helps me, and the middle one has his own grocery shop. Some people are jealous but they don’t realise that it took a lot of effort for me to achieve my goals. If you have your own farm, you have sleepless nights and an unpredictable life, but I don’t complain; we are not in need, thanks to Allah, Alhamdulillah^^1^^.
“So, one month ago I came to the field. I looked around: tomatoes were smashed, onion stems were gnawed, and some peas and lentils were cut as well. Who could have done it? It wasn’t clear. The next day I came to the area again – it was the same thing, like after the Sinai war with Israel – everything was completely ravaged. Who was the culprit? Was it the neighbour’s boys or a thief, or some sort of evil Shaitan?
“ʻMaybe it’s a werewolf,’ I thought. I still remember a story my grandfather told me when I was a child, about a werewolf who lived in our area and who howled at the moon like a hyena at night, and he was stealing cattle like a wolf. During the day, he became an ordinary person, a respectable and true Muslim who wouldn’t touch anybody, but at night an evil power possessed him and transformed him into an animal. Cattle disappeared all around the village and bones and scraps were found in the field or by the road. People were starving because the werewolf was stealing their cattle every night and was howling at the full moon. It seemed that he wasn’t alone; there were many howling with him, it was an entire pack. They organised covens and made feasts in the night. The number of missing cattle was five times more than usual and it was so creepy that people were scared of looking out onto the street. Forty days later, when the body of the Imam was found torn to pieces near the bus station, the elders of the village gathered all the inhabitants inside the mosque, to identify the perpetrator. The person who couldn’t stand the power of prayer of the faithful Muslims would be the werewolf possessed by a wicked Jinni. Everybody prayed, the women separated from the men by a partition, and a new Imam read verses from the Koran. Suddenly a young man started to shake, at first quietly, only in his hands, but then the shaking affected his legs and then his entire body. He collapsed on the mat and shouted something incoherently. His screams strengthened and it seemed as if it wasn’t a man, but some creature screaming inside him.
“It was a local teacher, a handsome young man with a moustache. Later, his wife admitted that her husband had disappeared somewhere every night and his threats to kill her had forced her to keep silent.
“Then his screams turned into hysterical shouting and swearing. The Jinni raged so much in the man that he couldn’t control himself; he thrashed his arms and legs wildly, and his glazed, unseeing eyes stared blankly, when the Imam was reading from the Koran. Soon after, a howl of a werewolf was heard and then everyone realised what was among them. People tied him up and locked him in a barn. He spent the night there, howling and whining ceaselessly, but by morning the howling stopped and, when the police came to take him to the court, they found him dead. It wasn’t clear how he had died, but there was a tail of a wolf lying beside him and big canine teeth were stuck out from his open mouth, as from the mouth of a predator.” The old man stopped for a while and looked at Said with frightened eyes.
“So after recalling this story, I made up my mind to catch the thief and, if it was a werewolf again, to save the whole village from him. I took a big knife just in case, found a place at the beginning of the field and hid among ripe corncobs. I sat there waiting for a long time, but to no avail; there were only flies buzzing, and horseflies trying to sting me, and I waved endlessly at them.
“Suddenly in the evening, when I was half asleep, I heard a noise: someone was trampling my field and was tearing cornstalks. I quietly got up and saw a large black goat with huge ears and horns and blue eyes. He was very handsome and very independent. I looked at him, chewing my crop and paying no attention to me. I ran to him, shouting, ‘What are you doing? Stop it!’ He looked at me with his shameless eyes and continued chewing, as if nothing had happened. I pulled out my knife immediately and cut his throat. It was nothing special. I always cut sheep during Eid al-Adha^^2^^.”
“And what happened after that?” Said asked.
“A neighbour wrote a report to the police that I had killed his goat. Take more,” the old man said, offering Said another piece of flat bread stuffed with fuul beans.
“What about you, father?”
“I don’t need so much; I’m an old man. Eat it yourself.”
Said slowly split the bread in half; his hand caught the beans that came out from the bread and he put them in his mouth; he then gave the second half of the bread to the old man. They ate in silence.
“Everything will be fine, Inshaalah^^3^^,” said Said, trying to reassure the old man.
“Allahu Akbar^^4^^,” the old man said, then lay down on his small mat and soon breathed heavily, lost in the pleasant world of his dreams.
It was a preliminary detention cell. Some were waiting for the court and others for assignment to another prison. Inmates were not fed; everyone relied on himself or on friends and relatives who would not allow them to die of starvation and sent food. Visits were banned; there was a mandatory thirty days moratorium for prisoners, but since no one was detained in the place for more than thirty days, visitors did not come to see inmates and the only deliveries were packages from home. They were delivered to the cell through the distribution centre, after thorough inspection. Every morning a prison guard announced a list of the prisoners who had been sent food, clothes or books, and put the boxes by the door.
Deliveries were not only channels for provisions: they were the only way to communicate with loved ones. Sometimes people could find a piece of paper in a book or carefully folded in food, where family news, declarations of love, wishes and advice were written in familiar handwriting, bringing the reader close to tears. Besides, food cooked by grandmother, mother or wife reminded them of home and kept the warmth of the family love in their hearts. Homemade sweets evoked the most admiration and nostalgia: Grandma’s malban^^5^^ melted specially in the mouth; semolina basbousa^^6^^ cooked by mother was more gentle than usual and the sweet baklava of the spouse left an aftertaste in the mouth as if after a kiss.
Essential in the cell were burners. Food was cooked or heated by them. Not everybody had burners, but those who owned them were privileged. They could turn cold food into delicious dishes. They performed miracles. They were treated respectfully and perceived benevolently as if they were the breadwinners of caveman times, and they had a special status. Their piece of the small domain was a sacred place around which, as if around the bonfire of the tribe, people gathered together in order to dine, making their own contribution to the shared pot in the form of beans, chicken, beef or fish, vegetables and bread.
Usually they ate cold food snacks for lunch, but in the evening, when dinner started, everybody sat comfortably, forgetting the scraps and insults from the day, and talked and consumed their food together. However, there were days when there was not a joint dinner, when inmates, waiting for new deliveries, had finished their leftovers, and the owners of the burners were sitting alone, warming their hands in the cool evening cell.
The next day they decided to cook koshary for dinner. The burner of the bald man, who was considered to be an authority in the cell, attracted ten people. The meal was meant only for those who had been involved or for those for whom it was designated. A portion was designated for the bald man, and one for his slave, or more precisely for the dark skinned Nigerian who followed the orders and whims of the bald man. Two young guys could eat in exchange for cigarettes, of which they had a carton; they exchanged them like coupons for meals during the week. The rest contributed their ingredients into the shared pot: an old man had two cans of chickpeas; a moustachioed middle-aged Bedouin gave lentils and rice; a fat man had onion and garlic; and a slim tall guy, just sixteen years old, put in tomatoes and spices. The cousin of the fat man ate for free, as did Said, who was an exception. Newcomers were entertainers and brightened up the life of prisoners, because they told stories and breaking news, so a few mealtimes were free for them.
“How long are people detained here for?” Said asked the cousin of the fat man.
“According to the law, people can be detained without a court order for forty eight hours and a weekend, but in reality, everybody is detained differently. It depends on how difficult your case is and how long they will try to extract information from you,” he replied.
“And then? What happens after?”
“You go to court and then prison. It’s a real prison. Are you a politician, by the way? You look like an intelligent person,” said the cousin, winking at Said.
Said smiled but he said nothing. His guilty smile said everything itself, as if he was caught off guard. It was clear that he was a political prisoner.
“Don’t worry – political prisoners have high standing here – but in Cairo you’ll have a hard time. You will be really humiliated by the other inmates there. However, political prisoners are special people. They are usually educated and they live less of a thug life. By the way, the son of the old man is a political activist. I think the old man is too. He was seen together with his son around the opposition movement.”
“What’s this?” shouted the bald man suddenly, holding a metal cup in his hands and looking at the dark-skinned guy. “Why are the dishes dirty? Tom, come here now and wash them.”
Tom crept up to the bald man, took the cup and was dealt a heavy slap. After hitting him, the bald man mumbled something else and then, seeing that the slave had obeyed him and his cup was clean, said that Tom had earned his bread and could join the common pot.
“Why don’t you respect yourself?” asked Said, sitting next to Tom as they started eating.
“Do I have a choice? You have relatives and friends. Somebody will bring you food for sure. Whom can I rely on? Who needs me? I don’t want to die soon. Moreover, it’s not a humiliation for me. It’s a game. I play the role of the slave and I get my food as a salary, like in the theatre,” said Tom, looking boldly at Said with his impressive eyes, the whites of which contrasted dramatically with his dark skin. “I’m used to it. It’s not the first time; I’ve been in prison before.”
“Why?” asked Said.
“Drug possession. I spent eight years in Abu Zabel prison. It wasn’t a life at all; it was just an existence. We were fed there, unlike here, but what we had there could hardly be called food. I was treated like a slave. Being a slave here can’t compare with being a slave there. I had to clean the commode and wash the clothes for all the inmates; I cleaned the cells and was bullied by everyone. I went through it for eight years. I was supposed to be imprisoned for fifteen but my time was reduced because of good behaviour. After that I enjoyed only two years of freedom.”
“What about this time?”
“Now it’s drug use. Actually it was a sample of hash that someone gave me. I wanted to buy a large quantity of the drug; I was going to trade it. I had to live somehow. Do you think it’s easy to pass by when money lies under your feet and all adult males smoke hashish? Most traders sell it unpunished.
“But they set me up,” continued Tom. “Foreigners are not allowed to be in this business. So now here I am. They caught me just for show.”
Said looked closely at Tom. Only then did he realise that he was much older than he seemed to be at first glance. Tom’s tall, thin body made him appear younger, his dark skin disguised the wrinkles, his smile gave his face a juvenile optimistic appearance and his perfect shiny white teeth indicated good health. After scrutinizing him, Said added another twenty years to his initial estimate of twenty years. At the same time, Tom’s carelessness and thoughtlessness indicated that his nature and mindset were stuck in his twenties. Despite his hardship, he had not grown up or gained any experience, not to mention wisdom. Probably, he had a mechanism inside him that erased all negative experiences from his memory.
In the evening, the old man was taken away. The prison guard called him and forcibly grabbed his arm, then disappeared with him behind the closed door, leaving the sinister sound of their departing steps.
The next day, the old man did not appear and no one shared food with Said. He tried to sleep in an attempt to suppress his hunger, but sleep did not come. A swarm of thoughts whirled in his head, keeping his brain awake. In the evening, Said could not suffer the hunger anymore, so with an unsteady gait he approached the bald man and asked him for a piece of the oldest and driest bread.
“What could you give me? We have a rule: you give me, I give you. You must pay for everything in life, my friend,” said the bald man. “You could work for me. You could be my slave and I would feed you. But this vacancy is taken.” He looked at Tom, who was sitting in the corner bowing his head. “Do you have any cigarettes or hashish?”
“I have to think. All my relatives are in Cairo. There is one man. What is your price?”
“For one cigarette I will give you some bread; for a pack of cigarettes, a free meal twice during the day. For a joint it’s the same; four joints and you are full all the week. I don’t want a lot of hashish, otherwise the guards will smell it and punish everybody, but you’ll be the first. What do you say – are you interested in my offer or will you starve?”
“Yes, I’ll be able to get hash. There is one person responsible for delivery to the Bedouins. He is a reliable source. Give me your phone,” Said answered, reaching out to the black phone lying on the floor at the feet of the bald man. He dialled Mahmoud’s number.
“As-salamu Alaykum^^7^^, my friend. It’s me, Said. I’m in trouble. I’m in prison right now. At the moment, I’m at the one in Dahab, but I should be transferred to the prison in Cairo soon. I don’t know when.” Said’s voice was trembling. He spoke loudly, muting the chatter of the other inmates.
“Listen to me, keep your voice down! You want them to find out that we’ve got a phone? Speak in a low voice,” the bald man said irritably.
“Mahmoud, I can’t talk for a long, habibi^^8^^. I’m starving here; please bring me some bread, two or three packs of cigarettes and a finger of hash. It’s very important. Put the hash inside the bread, inside the one that will be first from the bottom. They won’t find it there. And another thing: give me a book, any type of book. I want to write a letter. All right, my friend? Thank you. I’ll be waiting.”
“You’re nobody’s fool!” laughed the bald man. Said noticed his eyes had lit up eagerly. “I can do business with you. When will he come? I can’t take it anymore.”
“Tomorrow, I think.”
The bald man smiled again, tapped Said on the shoulder, and then stood up swiftly and swaggered to the commode.
The next day, Said’s delivery was standing by the door – a small cardboard box containing several packs of cigarettes, a book, and five pieces of flat bread, in one of which he found hash as he had requested, together with a meal of Cairo-style chicken, baked in honey with pistachios, and carefully wrapped in foil.
It was a feast for Said. He immediately began to eat hungrily, ignoring everybody else, and after eating half of the sweet chicken without bread, wiped his greasy hands on his trousers and went to trade hashish and cigarettes for food.
“You’ve got it? I can’t believe my eyes,” said the bald man, smiling like a child, and he put his arms around Said. It was the best day of the fortnight he had spent in prison.
They walked to the corner of the cell, in order to hide somehow from the eyes of strangers and any unexpected visits from the guard, but it was impossible to hide away: everything was in view of the other inmates. They had to place Tom in front of them, so he could conceal them. Another inmate was asked to monitor the situation at the door and to listen for any noise. They did not want to expose themselves to any extra risks, bearing in mind that the punishment for consumption of hash might exceed several times the term for the crime that had brought them here in the first place. The drug was not only wanted by them, for after smelling the sweet aroma of the hash, several men, as if on command, got up from their places, pushing each other, like bees flying towards the nectar of a flower, and headed over to the two smokers. Sick people needed medicine, which could soothe their pain and transport them into another world, one of light and life. Immediately everybody, after realising who was the source of the saving elixir, vied with each other to ask or beg Said for a share.
At first, Said shared it with several inmates, but when the appetites of the crowd escalated and people behind could endure the long wait no more and started to crowd the line in front, pushing it closer and closer to the pleasure centre, he immediately stopped distribution. The crowd made a noise like a flock of birds. Every inmate begged Said. Someone offered services of a barber, someone a massage therapist, someone a teacher of English or French. People promised money, a camel, cattle or friendship forever. After the fat man, with whom Said had previously shared two days’ dinner, placed fifty pounds into his hands, the commotion intensified, gradually turning into a battle of words and disputes. It was not pleading anymore; there were claims and requests, demands for justice and mercy, with tones of despair from people who needed another reality.
Said looked at them and he wanted to laugh. Initially, he held back his laughter, but after a few minutes, no longer able to control the chemical reactions of his brain, he switched to another mode of operation, and laughed. His blood rushed in an upwards stream, expanding cells of the body flickering from the pleasure, and he could no longer control himself. It was his laughter that stopped all the bizarre noise. The laughter was like the unexpected ring of an alarm clock, which wakes you up from a deep sleep. It was like a cold shower, out of which you wanted to spring, except that you made yourself remain still. Everybody became silent, as if by order, caught unawares by this unexpected outburst. Even the bearded man, who was trying to persuade Said to have a haircut in exchange for a small piece of hashish, stopped bartering.
Suddenly, the sound of door keys was heard. Someone shouted, “Said!” The bald man moved discreetly to the other side of the cell. The crowd stepped aside. The rough voice of a cell guard echoed through the cell.
“What’s going on here? What’s this gathering? Get to your places… fast!”
The guard walked to Said with a rapid stride, pushing away people in his path. Said would be caught red-handed in a few seconds. He had a piece of hashish in his right hand and a cigarette made with the crushed drug in his left hand. The sudden appearance of the cell guard had the same effect on Said as his laughter had had on the inmates. It was a shock that made him freeze, without knowing what was happening. His laughter abruptly turned to fear, and the joint’s effect on him vanished instantly.
“Is that you, mister policeman? I’ve been waiting for you,” Tom exclaimed, standing in the path of the cell guard and blocking him from Said. He ran to the cell guard and tried to embrace him, kissing him on the cheek.
Said was concealed. Understanding immediately came to him. He quickly trampled the joint underfoot, picked it up and put it into his underwear, together with the piece of hash.
“Disgusting,” hissed the warden. “Get away from me, jackal!” He forcefully pushed Tom away, making him stagger and fall, and removing the invisible wall that separated the warden from Said. The warden glared at Said, squatting and spitting to the side; he then turned angrily and walked out of the cell. Said mouthed a silent ‘Thank you’ to Tom as the warden slammed the door behind him.
Half an hour later, Said lay on the floor, looking at the ceiling. The effect of the hashish had returned and calmed him down again. All the worries and events of the past few days fell by the wayside and the uncomfortable environment stopped oppressing him. Vivid images spontaneously arose in his head, even more relaxing and diverting. He could now look at everything like an outsider and make decisions without being influenced by emotions and fear.
Everything had happened quickly and unpredictably. He had not expected that the situation would end with his arrest. As one of the activists, he had decided to organise a gathering in Dahab. He had been ready to hold a meeting and distribute literature.
After prayer, they had gone home to the local Imam. There were five of them. He had talked to the people, sitting on the carpet, and explained to them that they had to start using more drastic measures in the fight against the regime. He had produced arguments and facts, talking about the poor life of most of the population, the wealth of the ruling elite, the corruption in all government agencies and the non-compliance with laws. Everybody had agreed with him and nodded approvingly.
The Imam had supported him and called for the observance of Sharia law. “We don’t need either socialism or democracy. We need Islam and Sharia law. We have to create a new state in which we will only rely on the mercy and will of Allah,” said the Imam. Although Said was inclined towards democracy and equal rights for all citizens, he had not contradicted the Imam.
Suddenly, their meeting had been interrupted by an abrupt knock on the door. The police had entered the house and found their group, at the centre of which sat Said with a small pile of leaflets. They had asked the Imam what was happening and who was the organiser of this gathering. The Imam had pointed to Said and explained to them that he had invited him to talk about spiritual things, but instead Said had held revolutionary conversations soon after and called for the overthrow of power. Said had not expected this turn of events and such a brazen betrayal. He had opened his mouth, trying to say something to defend himself, but shut it immediately after seeing handcuffs, which the captain had stretched out to secure his hands.
It was three days since the old man had been taken and Said started to worry about him. The old man was the first and only person in the cell who had helped him and treated him as a friend.
“Why has the old man been absent so long? Where are they holding him?” Said asked Tom.
“Perhaps in the torture cell,” replied Tom.
“Have you been there?”
“Yes. I’ve been there. Not the one here but in the one in Cairo. I think they must have a torture cell here as well. They hang you, naked to the waist. They hang you by the arms, but at the same time, they whip you or electrocute you, and occasionally pour water on you. They can leave you hanging for a few hours or overnight. I remember I lost consciousness from the pain. I begged them to stop beating me, but they just ignored me. They were beasts, not humans. They didn’t break me though.”
“Why did they do it to you? You’re not a politician, after all.”
“They thought I would squeal about my accomplices. I was not the one who sold, supplied and grew hash.”
Around midnight, the door creaked open and the old man walked into the cell. His galabiya was torn and the back of it was covered with red streaks, seeping through the fabric. His face was blue from the beatings, blood clotted in his eyebrows.
He moaned and asked for water. Said brought it to him, and the old man thanked him and for some reason called him Mido. It was probably the name of one of his sons.
“What’s wrong with you, father?” Said asked.
“My heart,” murmured the old man with his hand on his chest. “I was beaten for too long. My poor heart won’t survive. Son… please help my son. He is in jail too. His name is Mido.”
“It’s OK, father. Please don’t worry. I’ll call a doctor now,” Said comforted him, putting a hand across his shoulder.
Said banged on the door for about five minutes, but he heard only silence. It was only after he shouted, “Help! A man is very ill,” that the sound of footsteps came from the corridor and the door opened.
“This man has a heart problem. Can you call for a doctor?” he said, panting with agitation.
“We don’t have a doctor,” the cell guard said dryly.
“How come? He will die. He’s not a dog. He’s a human. Please call for a doctor.” By now he was shouting from overwhelming anger.
“Tomorrow, Inshallah,” the guard said and slammed the door. The clank of the closing door echoed in Said’s heart.
After this act of cruelty from the guard, Said squatted, leaned his head against the door and looked at the old man, who had his hand over his heart, panting; his face was pale, and his half-open eyes looked at Said with fatigue and weakness.
“I won’t let him die,” exclaimed Said and he began to knock on the door again – at first quietly and hesitantly, fearing a rough response from the other side; then his knocks grew more urgent and he beat at it not only with his hands but also his feet, trying to attract attention and save the old man. This lasted for about fifteen minutes. Exhausted, he had given up hope of getting a reaction and was about to sit, when the door suddenly opened again. The face of the guard, seething with rage, showed up in the doorway.
“I told you, cretin!” he screamed and abruptly kicked Said in the chest as he squatted on the floor.
Said fell, felt spittle on his face and silently cried from frustration. He felt sorry for the old man, but he was also angry because of his helplessness and inability to respond to the insult and to change his situation. He felt with all his heart that he wanted to help the old man in the same way as the old man had helped him – fed, comforted and adopted as his own son. He wished he could have met this old man in another place. He wished they could have had a heart-to-heart talk together after they had been released, while smoking shisha, filled with tobacco or something stronger, and mixing it with sincere laughter along with strong hot tea.
“Father,” Said whispered to the old man, but his words were met with silence.
“Died,” someone said quietly in the dark cell, like a voice from above, over the curtain of the stage, which stated the death.
“Why?” cried Said, despairingly.
The old man lay still on the cold floor, his mouth slightly open, his face frozen into a motionless mask; his glazed eyes, directed towards the ceiling as if they had seen something, had an expression of bottomless depth and complete indifference.
“Allah Yarhamuk^^9^^,” cried Said, wiping his tears and putting his hand over the old man’s eyes.
Said did not know if he was asleep or awake. He thought that he was asleep, but part of his brain was turned on and he woke from the slightest movement. He kept having the same dream; it was a succession of obscure events, which continued even after waking and going back to sleep. He was running away from the police in this dream; the old man was running with him, the barking of the dogs and the shouts of their pursuers could be heard behind them, and a voice pleaded in his ears: “Help me, son. Help… Help my son.”
Alexey and Kate went out of the rented apartment, and the noise of the street deafened them: the creaking rumbles of wheels; the incessant honk of car horns; the siren of an emergency vehicle driving past; shrill roars of motorcycle engines; and excerpts of the conversations of passers-by.
Cars sounded their horns relentlessly. It was like a conversation they were having with each other. In this band of sounds, one could hear a short trill of requests, prolonged repetitive demanding signals and impatient loud beeping orders. The whole street communicated in the struggle for survival. Rules did not exist. Rules were being created on the go, through dialogue and mutual concessions. Rules did not even exist for crossing the streets, and pedestrians had to run between the lanes of traffic, rushing, spinning their heads this way and that, hoping to choose the right strategy.
“Crossing the street in Cairo is an art,” Kate said. “There are hardly any traffic lights for pedestrians here. There are only four in the entire city, and they don’t even work. Watch how people cross the road or, to be more exact, run across it.”
Alexey noticed an elderly man, skilfully trotting across the road, weaving between the cars, and then he watched two obese women with shopping bags, walking quickly ahead with heavy gaits, constantly turning around.
“The most important thing is to avoid panic,” Kate continued. “You should have a clear mind in order to get started. You should concentrate and look around attentively while crossing. If a car gets too close, you should understand: either you let it go, or you keep running and risk being knocked down. It all reminds me of the frog crossing the street in the computer game, ‘Frogger’.”
In spite of her experience, Kate could not cross the heavy traffic. For a moment, she silently watched the pedestrians storming the road. Fear kept her from any rash action, as she decided to prepare herself first. She tried to lead Alexey across the road several times, but after seeing the cars advancing rapidly they retreated back, sadly discouraged by her helplessness in the face of the roaring monsters. Soon, Alexey took the initiative and changed places with Kate. He quickly led her across the road.
“Bravo. Frogs have passed the level,” Kate shouted and clapped her hands.
“I like it here already,” Alexey said.
After a hearty dinner, they returned to their apartment, which consisted of three bedrooms and a large living room with marble columns and empire-style furniture. They had managed to rent the apartment at an incredibly low price. The living room was furnished with two sofas, six classical-style armchairs, a patterned Persian carpet, chandeliers made of Bohemian crystal, a gilded coffee table with curved legs, and paintings showing the seascape of a stormy sea and a lost ship sailing through the huge waves. A large dining table polished to a high gloss, heavy oak chairs and a bar counter with a granite surface were positioned behind the columns.
“Today we’ll go to see the pyramids and after that we’ll visit Said’s parents,” Kate said to the sleepy Alexey as she drank a cup of coffee.
An hour later, they were in a taxi, heading towards Giza. In the distance, the Pyramid of Menkaure peeked out over the buildings and palm trees, attracting visitors with its centuries-old mysteries, and gradually increasing in size as they drew closer. The colour of all three pyramids blended with the desert; it seemed as if they had risen up from a sea of sand.
Kate walked slowly up to the Pyramid of Cheops and caressed a big stone at its base. After putting her hand on the stone, she closed her eyes and stood still for some time, as if reliving its long history. She proposed to Alexey that they should climb up the stone ridges and contemplate the flaming sunset from the summit. She wanted to view the world from the top, hoping that the pyramids would tell her their story.
Alexey refused, dismissing the idea as far too dangerous. She reluctantly agreed with him and walked away somewhat frustrated, staring back at the monuments. Soon after, a policeman in a black uniform approached them and said that the area was about to close and they had to leave.
In the evening, they sat at the large round table in the house of Said’s family: Jamila, Fatima and Youssef. Jamila, Said’s sister, was a young twenty-year-old girl who had recently started university. Her mother, Fatima, a small, stout woman with a kind face and large sincere eyes, looking affably at her guests, was sitting nearby with her husband Youssef. Youssef was a thin man with a withered face and grey hair. He was too timid to smoke at the table in front of the guests, so he went to the window every fifteen minutes to smoke a strong cigarette. The acrid smell, absorbed by his body and clothes, was an integral part of his presence. He bore a look of contemplation as he sat in almost complete silence during the whole dinner, uttering only a few words throughout the meal. It was obvious that the leading role of the family belonged to the mother, who constantly brought up new dishes from the kitchen and then ran back to cook some more, without eating anything herself.
Jamila said that she had entered the faculty of tourism management at the University and she was going to do an internship as a tour guide during her study. She loved her own city and was excited to share her plans for the future. She recommended some interesting places in Cairo to them that tourists often missed.
“Let them eat, Jamila. They seem to be tired of you chatting,” Fatima said, bringing in another delicious-looking dish.
Roast pigeon stuffed with rice crunched agreeably in the mouth. Kate and Alexey were enjoying the dinner; they were drinking a bottle of red wine with it, one of the two bottles that they had brought as gifts, but which remained untouched by their teetotal hosts.
“How is Said? How does he feel? When will he be released?” Fatima asked, once the guests had only piles of gnawed bones left on their plates.
“It’s nothing serious. He was just detained because of some radical speeches at a meeting with an Imam. He’ll probably be released soon,” said Kate. “He misses you. He asked us to say hello to you. He said that his case is not very serious, because he didn’t commit any crime.”
“I hope everything will be sorted out soon,” Fatima said. “He’s not a criminal. He was always an example for others in school and at university.”
“What about Egypt? Do you like it?” Jamila asked.
“Yes, a lot. It’s an interesting country. It’s not my first time here; I know the country well, but it’s an exotic place for Alexey. He has never been to any Arabic country before,” Kate said, taking a long sip of wine.
“I like Egypt very much as well. It’s a beautiful country and the Egyptian people are very friendly,” Alexey said.
“Do you travel together?” asked Jamila.
“We were originally in a group of travellers. There were many people at first, but then we were left alone. Alexey is my new boyfriend,” Kate said, slightly drunk. “I’ve recently broken up with my ex.”
“You’ll probably get married soon. Will you?” Jamila asked.
“I don’t think so. I value my freedom too much and he is not the right person for me,” Kate answered bluntly.
Jamila became silent, as did the whole family. Kate looked at them for a moment and then paused before picking up the second bottle of red wine. She opened it as quickly as a professional bartender, and filled her glass to the brim.
“Don’t you think that you’re drinking too much?” Alexey whispered to Kate, moving the bottle away from her.
“Don’t you think that you control me too much?” she said, far too loudly.
At once, the whole family looked questioningly at Kate. Conservatism limited them and they lived in accordance with rules, which forbade them to drink alcohol and required them to act in a certain way, especially in the presence of elders. Kate looked back at them defiantly.
Alexey was disappointed in Kate. This doubt cast a shadow on his love and he realised that he did not idealise Kate any more. He now looked upon her in a different light. In fact, nothing had changed; but each person perceives another person as an image into which he puts feelings, thoughts and parts of his own world, creating a certain personality in his mind and projecting his preferences and dislikes. Kate’s image was tarnished for him now. It seemed to him that his love for Kate, which had been pure and light before, no longer existed.
The next day they were sitting in an outdoor café. A white cat with ginger spots and yellow eyes was running around in circles. He got up on his hind legs, resting on the feet of the big wide seats and watching the food being eaten; he meowed pleadingly, begging for a small piece, but none of the other visitors paid any attention to him. He grew tired of begging and jumped silently onto their table, narrowed his eyes and looked attentive then twitched his left ear and sat down, waiting for a treat.
Kate sipped black mint tea from the glass as she looked at the cat. Alexey left a piece of the meat on the metal plate and pushed it closer to the cat, which ate it greedily. Two other cats were sitting on the ground and looking up enviously, hoping that there would be something left for them. When the third cat – ginger with a white collar – came and meowed so loudly that everyone turned to look, the owner of the café came and chased away the other cats. He caught the ginger cat and showed them its face. The cat stared wide-eyed at them, and they noticed that he had different coloured eyes: the left eye was blue and the right one was green with a yellow tint.
This curious cat had brought them some pleasure and they felt harmonious with each other once more. Kate’s love for Alexey shone with a bright light again. He realised that their relationship was not overshadowed any more, and her behaviour yesterday was partly due to a misunderstanding, a cloud that had briefly blocked the rays of the sun, before being carried away by the wind in an unknown direction. He was looking at the cloudless sky, which brought him peace.
“The ideal human being does not exist,” he thought. “Everyone has their pros and cons, but the essence of every being is as light as the sun, giving away its energy. Clouds can obscure the sun, but it will still continue to shine brightly. The same is true of our inner selves, which are bright, clean and hidden far inside us, bringing warming rays of goodness, love and harmony. However, selfishness, anger and negativity – which originate through conflicts within one’s self and with others – obscure the heart, as if they were clouds, leaving it with no light and burdening life. They will pass, as bad weather does, but we, negatively reacting to our own problems, create them. After all, the inner world of each person is the universe and each person creates his own universe.” He looked beyond the horizon.
“Let’s go to the Citadel,” Kate suggested.
A taxi driver took them in an unknown direction for a long time. Kate had thought that the Citadel was much closer, and began to worry when she saw the pointed cones of the pyramids in the distance.
“We don’t need the pyramids. We’ve been there already. We need the Citadel. The city centre,” said Kate to the driver.
The taxi driver turned and drove back in the opposite direction and then he circled around again, turning into narrow streets and asking passers-by for directions. Finally, he drove them to the place and asked them for twice the amount of money than they had agreed. They bartered and argued with him for some time and finally got out of the taxi ten minutes later, after agreeing on a price.
After sightseeing at the Citadel, they took a taxi and found that it was the same driver from before sitting there, smiling and greeting them. He seemed delighted to have such naïve tourists and had waited at the entrance for more than an hour.
On the way back, they saw a group of people walking towards the city centre. They were moving quickly and purposefully as if they were heading to an important event.
“Maybe today is a holiday. There are so many people on the streets,” Alexey said, looking around.
This time they drove quickly, without searching for the itinerary and making strange zigzags around the city. Kate decided not to argue after a higher price than agreed was demanded once again. She silently got out of the taxi, gave a sign to Alexey to follow her, and poked money through the window, less than he had asked for. The taxi driver complained for a while, but they started walking swiftly, leaving his voice and the beeping of his horn behind them.
The deafening trill of a phone rang an hour later; somebody was calling on the apartment phone. Alexey thought it must be the landlord and carefully picked up the phone.
“Hello, Alexey. Have you heard what’s going on in the city centre?” the loud voice of Fatima sounded.
“Hi, Fatima. No. What’s happened?”
“Thousands of people are gathered outside, protesting and demanding the resignation of the president and of the government. Clashes with the police have started. Don’t go anywhere. Stay at home. It’s dangerous on the streets.”
They turned on the TV. It was coverage showing Tahrir square and the nearby streets. There were tens of thousands of protesters. People were shouting and chanting something and waving their arms, but their voices and cries were not transmitted. Instead of the street noise, they heard the rapid emotional speech of the host speaking in Arabic.
They heard a strong rumble, which made the windows rattle. They looked down the street and saw a column of tanks. There were more than a dozen of them, moving slowly towards the city centre.
“Turn on CNN please,” Kate asked.
The commentator said that unprecedented events were happening in Cairo, that history was being written and that similar protests had not taken place in the country since the seventies. Another window in the corner of the screen was broadcasting a video stream from Tahrir square.
“I’m going there,” Kate said suddenly, standing up abruptly, and she went to the refrigerator. She filled a plastic bag with a few cooked chicken legs wrapped in newspaper, two cans of olives, a pack of strawberries and a plastic bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice. She took two halved baguettes from the breadbox and walked towards the front door.
“Where are you going? Do you know what’s going on out there?” Alexey blocked her way.
“I’m not going to sit around here all the time, shaking with fear. I want to support them.”
“But it’s dangerous there. You’re risking your life. What if you get arrested like Said? Do you want to go to jail?” Alexey asked.
“Have you forgotten who I am? I’m a member of the anti-globalist movement and it means that I’m a revolutionary at heart. People are protesting against the regime over there. History is being created on the streets, but I am staying here. I just have to be with these people. This is my mission. I’ll help them to win,” Kate said pathetically.
“You’re behaving like a child. Moreover, it’s not your country. Don’t forget, you are a foreigner here. It’s better to let people sort out their own problems. It’s better if you stay here.”
“You know, Alexey, I’m not going to ask your permission. I’m leaving right now.”
“No. I won’t let you go. You’re not going anywhere. I’ll be up all night to guard the door, because I’m worried about you. What if something happens to you? Everything here is serious. There might be bloodshed; people could be killed.”
“Now I’m missing Robbie,” Kate said without hearing him. She didn’t seem to understand what he said, and was overwhelmed by her emotions. “You’re just scared. History is unfolding in front of you, as well as interesting and exciting events. You can take part in an unforgettable adventure, but you scream that it’s dangerous.”
Alexey looked at Kate, who had stopped talking and was now sitting on the chair with her head down.
“Everything related to the protest movement inspires and energises it,” he reasoned to himself. “Perhaps the meaning of her life is in protests and in conflict with the external enemy. Maybe she wants to change herself, but without knowing where to start, seeks to change everything around her. Perhaps she is so confused and suffering from such conflicting thoughts that she rushes at that external enemy.”
Alexey began to feel sorry for Kate. He stroked her hair as if she was a child, hoping that she would change her mind and calm down, but his affection did not change her mood. On the contrary, whether from weakness or from being completely lost in her thoughts, she shook her head.
“No one understands me. No one. Not even you,” she said.
“Please don’t get upset like this,” Alexey said in a tone usually spoken to a naughty child. He took out a bottle of the dark “Bacardi”, poured a pure glass of it for himself, mixed a glass with Coke for Kate and gave it to her as if it was a soothing medicine.
After drinking, Kate calmed down and a playful smile appeared on her flushed face; her eyes showed determination and an impulse for action.
“Do you love me?” Kate asked him suddenly, with a heart-searching look, sweeping her hair back with her hand.
“Of course I love you.”
She got up, put the empty glass on the coffee table and walked closer to him with a relaxed, bold movement. It seemed that she had thought of a plan. She was ready for action with a decisive and designed counterattack.
“If you love me, you will go with me,” she murmured unexpectedly. “Don’t say anything. Just kiss me.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and her tongue eagerly penetrated into his mouth. He hugged her waist and felt a fever coming from her body. At the same time, when he stroked her bare back, he felt her shiver and goose bumps appeared under his hands, as if electric shocks were being sent through her body. It was as though two elements had collided in her: one was icy cold and another one was hot and glowing. They were like two passions colliding with each other, freed from an ocean of contradictory feelings; as a result, the conflict inside her heart was expressed through the contrasts of her body temperature, indicating fear and overwhelming desire at the same time.
Wessam did not complain about life. His company was prosperous and brought in good income: he had recently bought a large luxury apartment in Nasr City, he often travelled abroad, and could afford what the majority of population could not even dream about. It seemed that he should have been happy with all he had achieved, be grateful to the regime for stability; but he hated this system.
He often asked himself, and his friends, similar questions: “Why don’t we have a democracy like in many countries of the world? Why has corruption reached such enormous levels that it devours the resources of this country like a monster? Why is it very hard for business to be moderately or highly successful? Why can you be arrested for no reason and be imprisoned only because the system thinks that you are acting suspiciously? Why has education deteriorated, and left people graduating from schools and universities with only superficial knowledge? Why has poverty covered the whole country like a spider’s web, and left the people struggling in its trap like hostages?”
The answer to everything was the same: it was because of the system, of which they all were the gears and cogs, spinning in accordance with the program, being turned by one person – a dictator. He had created this machine in order to use its abilities to the full to rule the country, control the destinies of people, and reward, punish, execute or forgive them. Government, parliament, bureaucracy, economy and media, all playing at democracy, were subservient to him.
Where do dictators come from? Why do they come as the innocent saviours of countries, and then, after growing and finding their feet, create a personality cult, deprive people of freedom and drive them to a dead end?
Why do people trust the wolf in sheep’s clothing who, after grabbing the power, discards his mask and starts to suck their blood through oppression and harassment in order to strengthen his own animal nature and despotic regime?
Why do people accept the lack of freedom imposed on them, obey like slaves and worship an idol, and then suddenly, after waking up, topple a monster, who they had fed themselves, from the pedestal?
A nation probably has its own pressure buttons. When it is weak, it responds to external stimuli more, such as fear, hatred and greed, and it is easier to manipulate it, which is exactly what dictators do. No wonder they appear at a time of economic crisis in the country, when people are most compliant and vulnerable. They put pressure on a national idea, the idea of stratification of society, the poverty, religious feelings and other weak points, so that people will follow them and obey. They brazenly and aggressively control the consciousness of the people to take advantage of them and degrade them. They create fear and amplify it. They need to make people afraid, because freedom will destroy their power.
A dictator is a monster. People suckle and nurture him, without understanding that he will eat them, and then, after he sucks all the blood out of them and starts to devour their flesh, they want to destroy him, but often it is too late to take action; their own country does not belong to them anymore.
On Saturday, Wessam organised a party. Close friends came to visit him. They were all a little tipsy and relaxed, smoking shisha filled with mango tobacco and reclining majestically on soft satin cushions on the balcony. Ahmed started a conversation about the upcoming protest, planned for Tuesday, which was a public holiday in the country.
“Maybe it will be our only chance for a few decades. It would be stupid to miss it. People are heated up for a revolution. The Tunisian revolution has spread into many Arab countries. Protests have already begun in Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Sudan and Oman. Even in Saudi Arabia, one man burnt himself as a protest against the authorities.
“And we, Egyptians, what about us?” continued Ahmed. “Our culture is the oldest; we have a rich history, a strong education. We have always been an example for others to follow. Now what have we become? People are despairing and apathetic. The regime has driven people to frustration. We’re tired of being slaves for our Pharaoh. We can no longer put up with it. Khallas!” ^^10^^
“I’m against any revolution,” said Ali, a thirty-five-year-old bank worker. “We have economic growth. It is small, but it is growth. Look at the statistics: how many new roads, hotels, hospitals, and schools have been built? Life is improving. We take small steps, but we are going forward. We have a democracy. Look how many private channels we have.”
“We all know that you have a good life, but there is the truth, and the truth is that we live very poorly compared to other countries. My friend, you judge by your own standards, but not everybody works in the bank,” said Ahmed.
“Please don’t talk to us about television,” he continued. “Everybody knows that even private channels are corrupt and non-democratic. They belong to big business and large corporations. They support the president, because he feeds them; but there is one hope – the internet. It’s the only refuge of the truth which belongs to the people.”
“By the way, the page of Khalid Saeed has more than twenty thousand subscribers,” Wessam suddenly interrupted him.
“Wessam, don’t forget to come on the twenty-fifth. We’ll meet in Dokki^^11^^,” Mustafa said, inhaling his shisha.
“I don’t know if I can go. I’ve been invited to dinner by my ex-wife and I want to spend more time with my daughter. You know that I miss her a lot,” Wessam explained, with a touch of sadness.
He had separated from his wife less than six months ago, but he could still not accept that his beloved daughter, Rola, did not live with him anymore and that she visited him only twice a month at weekends or on rare holidays. He constantly waited for these days and cancelled all meetings and activities. His five-year-old daughter had beautiful olive eyes and two neat braids on her head. She was a little angel, whom he loved more than anything else in the world.
“You have to be there. We all have to go. Everybody who stands for Egypt,” Ahmed said persistently. “Now the time has come when we have to go out on the streets. If we don’t make it, he will remain in power for decades – first him, and then it will continue through his son. Let’s go out and give a gift to the police on National Police Day.”
“Ok, Ahmed, but only until six in the evening. I must be in Heliopolis at seven,” Wessam responded to Ahmed’s invitation.
It was a calm, sunny day. A bright winter sun had risen long ago and distributed its modest rays to the city, which was never quiet, even on a holiday. Car klaxons sounded non-stop, echoing in the streets and lanes. Brakes screeched, motorcycles squealed; but these noises were muffled by the loud voices of the people. A young man carried a heavy glass box with sweets on his shoulders and walked past cafés, occasionally shouting, “Freska^^12^^… Freska.” A horse and broken cart, loaded with earthen vessels, stood by the side of the road. Pieces of them were lying scattered on the road; the resulting traffic jam enhanced the noise of the cars even more.
Wessam drove in a good mood. He enjoyed this time of year. He loved winter, when the sun was not so blistering and intense, when he did not need to hide behind the walls of his air-conditioned home in order to escape from the stifling hot air, which filled the space of the offices and shops through open doors and windows. He liked the feeling of liberation outside, gifted by winter, and the opportunity to be out in the fresh air without running away from the soaring heat and hot asphalt.
He was glad that he would meet friends, spend this day in their company; and in the evening, he would drive to his ex-wife and see his daughter. She would chirp like a little chick and tell him her latest news; they would read ‘Winnie the Pooh’; she would get tired of the busy day and fall asleep in his arms; and he would carry her to bed and then gently kiss her forehead as she slept.
After parking the car, he went to the subway and saw a small crowd. At first, there were about a hundred people, but then more people started to arrive and the crowd grew gradually. People came from different districts: they came from Giza, Shubra, Ramses and Nasr City. They were mainly middle class, young or middle aged, well-dressed people. Among them were also some poorer people, who stood out not only because of their shabby clothes, but also due to their emotional behaviour. They were noisier and more worrisome. It seemed as if they hadn’t come out for a demonstration, but for some celebration.
Ahmed and Mustafa arrived half an hour later. Wessam saw them on the other side of the road and waved his hand.
“Salam! Kaifa haloka?^^13^^” exclaimed Ahmed.
“Ahlan sadiqi. Ana bekhair^^14^^,” Wessam said, shaking hands with Mustafa and Ahmed.
“We are many today. Alf mabrouk^^15^^,” Ahmed commented, looking around at the crowd.
Ahmed was inspired. He saw power in all these people; it was like nuclear energy, invisible and weak in pieces, but gathered together they gave the synergistic effect of power, which could splash out and sweep away all obstacles in its path.
“When do we start?” Wessam asked Ahmed, looking at his watch, which was showing half past two.
“We must start in half an hour, according to the plan.”
Soon they headed off, the line of people stretching a few kilometres along the roadside. From the top, the crowd looked like one continuous string, floating like a stream towards the city centre.
An atmosphere of enthusiasm and joy soared above them, reflected in emotional ecstatic faces all around. Everyone was filled with faith and determination. They felt unity. They saw that they were many, and their ranks were constantly increased by random passers-by, shop sellers, restaurant workers and local residents, who, overwhelmed by the magnetism emanating from this stream, gave up their duties in the hope that they would be released from the burden of their everyday life problems by joining it.
Passing cars honked their horns, welcoming them. Some waved their hands, leaning out from open car windows. Some were scrutinising them favourably, sitting behind the wheel of their cars. Some slowed down and shouted their support:
“Well done boys! We are proud of you!”
“Don’t be afraid! We are with you!”
“Tell the old guy that it’s time to retire!”
When they came to the 6th October Bridge, emotions were high. A few people walking ahead cried out, “Batil. Batil^^16^^.” Their cries were like a rising avalanche, as the people walking nearby joined in; they were accompanied by the resounding clapping of hands. It seemed that it was not a crowd, but one huge organism, following some unspoken orders and moving with determination in its designated direction.
Some of the protestors took red, white and black national flags out of their pockets and waved them diligently. Others carried small hand-written posters and waved them in front of cameras, but when the journalists disappeared, they hid the posters, to avoid attention from police.
They crossed over the River Nile and began to descend from the bridge, when suddenly Wessam noticed that Tahrir square was blocked by a fence of police about a hundred metres away, wearing black outfits and transparent helmets. He did not know whether they could pass through this fence, but he was sure that it would not be easy to sweep it away.
At first they stopped, confused, and those walking behind started pushing the ones in front, crowding them out from the front line. Tension grew on both sides, but the initial fear of people at the sight of uniformed police soon began to fade away and transformed into anger. People had realised that they were much bigger in number than their enemies, and despite a lack of weapons, they could crush them and remove the fence with their bare hands. It did not matter what was waiting for them after: bloody clashes or peaceful protests, the main goal for them right now was the same: to capture Tahrir.
“What will we do?” Wessam asked.
“We’ll take it by storm. We’ll go decisively,” Ahmed said.
Everyone could feel that something was going to happen, as shouts and buoyant conversations ceased for a few seconds and a hanging silence predicted the oncoming storm, which was to break out and sweep away everything in its way.
Suddenly, they ran. Obsessive and uncontrollable, they rushed forward as if they were running a marathon. The distance between protestors and police was rapidly shrinking, and soon only the distance of outstretched hands was between them as they looked at each other angrily.
The people pushed in between the police line, and by breaking their chain, invaded Tahrir, scattering their enemies, who were trying to stop them with clubs and shields. Some reinforcements ran to join the police, but it was too late; the storm had succeeded.
They occupied the area like a landslide, pushing back the police, who fled towards the El Qasr-Al-Ein Street. They saw the weakness of the ones who seemed to be invincible and kept them in fear.
They gradually cleared the square. The police built a new fence, hoping to take revenge, and took up a waiting position. Several rows of police set up metal fences and lined up on the other side of the Mogamma, on the street leading to the hotel Semiramis International. It was clear by their determined and coordinated actions that they were waiting for their reinforcements – more troops and cars – to arrive.
People rejoiced. They understood, though, that it was only a small victory, only one of the steps that they had to take to achieve their main goal to overthrow the dictator.
“Congratulations! Congratulations!” an elderly man in a dark grey galabiya, standing close to Wessam, said to him and shook his hand. “It’s finally happened. We took to the streets and we are many.”
“Thank you, Khalid Saeed. Thank you, Tunisia. Without them, our people would not have woken up,” a middle-aged man suddenly shouted, smiling widely and patting the elderly man on the back.
Wessam felt pride for his own country and for the people who had taken to the streets and were creating history. He looked at Ahmed and Mahmoud and could tell that they had similar feelings.
“Masr^^17^^… Masr,” he shouted, overwhelmed with emotions.
“Masr,” echoed his friends and the people standing nearby.
They went on. The area was filling up with people. There were plenty of groups, and each of them was occupied with their own things: some sang with the accompaniment of guitars and handclaps, some chanted, some shouted slogans, some just debated. They seemed to be separate groups doing amateur performances, but if one listened to them more attentively, he could catch same meaning: the meaning of the whole protest.
Several hours afterwards, Wessam was tired of standing. He looked up and saw a helicopter from the special services, soaring like a dragonfly. It seemed that the helicopter hovered in one place, as if taking pictures and measuring the quantity of protesters, but soon it began to circle around the square, occasionally stopping above crowding groups.
A young man, covered in blood, had been beaten by the police and was walking across the square, accompanied by friends and other random people. He was the first to be wounded, proof that their joy was perhaps premature, and that they could have a long and bloody struggle ahead.
“Something has to happen,” Wessam thought. “The police can’t keep waiting.”
In fact, soon after this time, police cars and water cannons appeared from the side of the Kasr el Nil. Reinforcements had arrived. The police started dashing around. People were seen flitting between buildings, rapidly rushing and combining ranks. It was preparation for an attack. Police were gradually surrounding the protesters, tightening in a semicircle approach to the square; but protesters, overwhelmed with emotions, did not notice the preparation for the storm. Long, dark police wagons were coming from the side of the Egyptian Museum, like predators. They were waiting for the right moment to devour protesters and take them into the depths of prisons. After a few minutes, an ambulance followed them silently – the enemy was going to keep records of injured, drive them to the hospitals and then punish them with prison time.
Wessam leaned against a dark green fence, watching demonstrators passing by, when suddenly he saw a water cannon, which started chasing people away. The stream of water was flowing randomly out of the hose, like tropical rain. Soaked people crouched or hid, stepping aside. The water cannon approached Wessam and after drenching him with cold water from head to foot, turned abruptly to the right, targeting the crowd. A guy standing a few metres away from Wessam suddenly ran to the side of the water cannon and jumped on it. He rode it, resting his right foot on the rubber case above the wheel, the left resting on the front panel of the hood, and his hands holding a metal ledge by the windscreen. Then he crept up to the body of the water cannon, avoiding the hose. After seeing this, another protester decided to repeat his action and jumped on the body of the gushing water cannon as well. Together they began to shake the hose of the water cannon, and in a few minutes the water stopped, although the vehicle continued to drive, followed by a crowd of people. It then drove away out of sight, where the police troops were hiding.
Wessam tried several times to call his ex-wife, to tell her that he could not come to visit her. Short beeps came from the mobile.
“It’s so strange. All the bars are lit on my phone but there is no connection.”
“They most likely turned it off. People say that Tahrir is out of coverage. Try to walk further away from the square, but be careful, please. Don’t get caught,” Ahmed said.
Wessam jumped over the metal fence that separated the pedestrian zone from the square and walked away towards Shampolion Street. After walking a hundred metres, he finally got through to his former spouse by phone. She told him to take care and be cautious. Then he took out the memory card from his camera, inserted it into his mobile phone via an adapter and uploaded a few images from the demonstrations to the internet. Uploading information was an unspoken commitment among protesters. In this way, they created their own news, which was more credible and timely than official news from the media.
It was dark when he returned. Lights had been lit in some apartments of high-rise buildings, as well as street lamps twinkling on the outskirts, but the square was lit only by mobile phone screens.
People had gotten tired and many had left, but in spite of this, the emotional celebratory atmosphere of the protests continued. Some put newspapers or clothes on the pavement, and sat talking peacefully; some walked along the square as though taking an evening stroll on a promenade; the most active protestors joined small meetings which were breaking out in different parts of the square.
“Irhal ya Mubarak^^18^^,” the crowd, which they joined, chanted and clapped. “Irhal ya Mubarak. Irhal ya Mubarak.” Their cries were becoming louder and louder across the square, echoing through nearby streets.
It was already after midnight. Pops were heard from El Qasr el Nil Street and Wessam saw that the people standing in front of him were covering their faces with tissues or cloths. Tear gas was being thrown by police, gradually spreading clouds of acrid smoke, making it difficult to breathe and burning their eyes.
“I’ve brought gauze bandages,” Ahmed said, handing some to Wessam. “If bombs explode nearby, put them on immediately.”
“You’re a cautious man,” Wessam noted approvingly.
“Yes. Tunisian friends suggested this,” Ahmed said. “Another word of advice,” he continued. “If there is no effect from the bandages or you lose them accidently, use Pepsi or another soda drink.” Ahmed took two cans of Pepsi and gave one of them to Wessam. “You have to rub Pepsi against your face until the numbness has gone.”
“By the way, where is Mahmoud?” Wessam asked Ahmed.
“He has joined the group where the cardboard effigy of Mubarak is hung on the post,” Ahmed said. “The storm will probably start soon. When they begin, run. Now, we can’t resist them. The most important thing for us is to save ourselves. Everyone has to be saved separately, so tomorrow we can gather here again. We will continue like this day by day, until they run out of energy and we win.”
At this moment, more tear gas poured down from the side of the street and Wessam and Ahmed quickly put on the masks. The pops were increasing. They were followed by gunfire. Voices were shouting, the noise turning into a buzzing hum. Police sirens were heard moving towards them. The growing gas fog seemed to transform the action into some unnatural theatrical performance, making what was going on look unreal, and Wessam felt like a spectator. The people running around, police attacks and smoke, flowing smoothly, were all part of the scene – as if it was all a show, a part of an entertaining program. For a while, he watched the performance detachedly, absorbed by the unreality of the unfolding scene.
“Why have you got your mouth open?” Ahmed shouted at him. “Take some photos.”
Wessam took out his camera and, after taking a few shots in a row, switched to video mode; but he was only able to shoot for a short time as someone running away pushed him so hard that he barely kept his balance.
Police rushed in for the counter-attack, forcing people away with bullet-proof shields and beating them with clubs. They advanced forward step by step, occupying the square and pushing people towards the Egyptian Museum. They beat everyone indiscriminately.
An APC^^19^^ crawled out from a side street. A policeman in a helmet was leaning out of the APC and shooting rubber bullets randomly at people. A car drove ahead, through the crowd, crushing people who bounced off in different directions. The shooter fired at long range without stopping, systematically setting in motion the barrel of the rifle, out of which a cloud of smoke came, along with the rubber bullets.
Soon, a man appeared and climbed over the top of the APC, like the brave man who had climbed on top of the water cannon earlier. He scrambled onto its roof countless times, knocked down every time by police clubs, but then kept trying until he eventually fell down and was beaten by the police, who mercilessly struck him on the back, after which they dragged him towards a police wagon. The APC continued moving persistently and confidently like a dragon, emitting the smoke of tear gas along the way.
People were running away from the square and Wessam ran mechanically with everyone else. He was upset that he had lost sight of Ahmed, but after recalling his words that everybody had to save themselves in order to come here again and resume protests, he decided to leave the square as soon as possible and find somewhere to hide.
He ran to the Egyptian Museum and stopped, wondering where he should run to next – in the direction of the Nile Corniche or to the 6th October Bridge – when suddenly he saw a man lift a cobblestone from the road and throw it at the police, who swiftly rushed in his direction. The cobblestone hit one of the police officers and the thrower shook his fist at him, turning around to run away, when a bald man in leather jacket crept up to him, grabbed his elbow, and pulled him to the opposite side, towards the police. He resisted, but the man, who was obviously a secret service officer disguised in civilian clothes, tenaciously held him, and after waiting until the police got closer, pushed him forward. They caught their prey and started beating him with clubs, and when he fell down they circled him and started kicking him.
Wessam felt resentment, and at the same time he was ashamed of himself that he could not help the guy. He was overwhelmed with anger and rage. He tried to mute his emotions by turning on his camera and taking pictures, and he took a few shots before one policeman stopped kicking the guy on the ground and glared at him with the look of a hungry animal distracted from the hunt.
“Hey, you with the camera! Stop! Come here!” he shouted after the escaping Wessam.
At first, Wessam turned to him, but after seeing other policemen approaching him slowly and carefully, he turned abruptly around again and after taking a few steps back, ran as quickly he could in the opposite direction.
“Where are you running? Don’t mess with us. Catch him!” the policeman shouted, as three other officers rushed to catch Wessam.
He was running as if he was in a marathon, breathing hard and listening to his racing heartbeat, throbbing in his ears. His head was buzzing, from running and from fear, and a sudden rush of adrenaline mobilised all his strength and power. He felt as if his body was like a machine as he manoeuvred this way and that way; he continued to race down the road, seeing nothing ahead except asphalt and blurred streets.
“They seem to be falling behind,” he thought.
He wanted to stop and rest; his heart was no longer able to cope and he felt as if it would jump out from his chest. He was panting as if he was being filled by a bicycle pump, which strongly inflated his lungs with air without giving him time to breathe out the used oxygen. He stopped for a moment after a turn, glanced around the building and saw policemen running on the side of Talaat Harb Street. He hid again and, after noticing a small grocery store on the other side of the street, put his hood up and crossed to it at a slow pace, trying to disguise his panting. He stood by the grocery store, turned his back to his pursuers and bought a pack of cigarettes, all the time listening carefully to the sounds behind him. The police walked past. He heard them swearing about him, wondering where he had gone. Then he breathed a deep sigh of relief and, feeling his legs shaking, sat down on the pavement and lit a cigarette.
Wessam decided not to walk back to his car; he thought it would be safer to take a taxi, but there were no taxis, and he was walking for about fifteen minutes before a single taxi appeared on the street. A nervous taxi driver looked him up and down suspiciously before saying that the counter did not work, and because of the unrest in the city, he would apply a higher tariff.
Wessam could not yet calm down from the overload in his brain, bright pictures of the chases, fights and conflicts flickering and flashing before his eyes, and he looked distantly at the empty, quiet and sleepy night city streets. It was as if nothing had happened but, when he went past the tribune, where Sadat had been killed, he saw tanks standing in a row, in sinister silence, testifying of the impending battle.
Sherif had just celebrated his birthday. He had arrived from London the day before, after a two-week business trip. Although he loved that city, the gloomy, foggy, cold weather had exhausted him and he was glad to return to Cairo, to winter, which was like summer in England. He had celebrated his fiftieth birthday with close friends and with his sister Fatima and her husband Youssef. Jamila, his niece, had also showed up with her parents, but had then left, saying that she had to attend an important meeting.
There were fewer people present than he had invited, as many friends and colleagues had gone to the protests planned for this day. He had intended to join them as well, but the night flight had exhausted him so he slept it off, glad that he did not have to go into work. Instead he decided to relax and avoid any more stress so that he could recover as soon as possible from the cold which had infected him in London.
Sherif knew about the upcoming protest day. His cousin was an activist and had invited him to walk around the city protesting, along with his friends. Three weeks ago, Sherif had met him in a café and they had had a long discussion about the political situation in the region. At that time, Sherif had told him that no one could foresee a revolution as it did not have any planned date, but then it appeared like a volcanic eruption, arising suddenly and changing the country completely. Although his cousin had more political experience, he listened to Sherif’s opinion as Sherif was a famous and respected professor who taught history at the American University of Cairo.
After all the guests had left, Sherif sat in a chair, looking at photos and sipping aged whisky with ice. When he saw the professor of economics, an unmarried woman of forty years old, in a colleague’s group photo, melancholy crept into his heart. He was in love with her and he regretted that she had been unable to come for his birthday. He bit his lower lip and wondered how he could get closer to her. He felt that he was too slow and indecisive with love issues. Sometimes he lacked courage, but time was running out; he was still a bachelor and had missed a few opportunities in his life, when his affairs and passions could have turned into marriage. He poured more whisky and stood up after drinking it down, reaching for his phone. He hesitated. He wanted to hear her voice, but he did not want to look ridiculous in her eyes. He remembered that she lived with her mother and a younger sister, who had a husband and several children. Then he looked at the clock, showing half past eleven, and wondered whether it was wise to bother her so late.
The phone suddenly rang in his hand, like an alarm clock.
“Sherif.” It was Fatima’s voice. “Jamila is in Tahrir. Please take her away from there.”
“What’s happened? Where is she?” Sherif asked, confused by the frightened tone in Fatima’s voice, and worried that something serious had happened.
“She is at the demonstration. Don’t you watch TV? I couldn’t bear it if she goes to jail, like Said,” Fatima said, through her tears. “You have to go and find her. Please help us. We don’t have a car, we can’t drive there. I’m scared, Sherif. I’m scared for her. She’s still a girl. What if she is arrested?”
“Calm down,” Sherif said with a firm voice, sobering up instantly, his confidence returning to him. “Give me five minutes. I need to figure out how to get there; whether it’s ok for me to drive or if I should take a taxi.”
He considered for a few minutes whether it was worth driving from Zamalek. He didn’t like to take chances. Once, after a party at the American professor’s home, he was pretty drunk and had driven home in his car. His reactions were slow but, after bracing himself, he had felt that he could cope with driving. The streets had been empty and he thought he could made his way back home easily, when suddenly a policeman had appeared in front of him and ordered him to stop. He braked sharply and looked with frightened eyes at the policeman through the open window of his car, preparing for the worst. The policeman smiled in a strange way, casually looked at Sherif with dull red eyes and asked him for a bottle of water. Sherif had remembered that there was a bottle of water in the car and had started looking for it, searching through his things with shaking hands. He was afraid to show the policeman that he was drunk but realised that his movements, slightly inhibited reactions and confused appearance betrayed him, the realisation making him even more nervous. The policeman seemed to have no idea that a drunken man was sitting in the car, and he was still smiling, waiting for the bottle of water. Finally, Sherif found the water and proudly handed it to the policeman, who immediately opened it and began to drink greedily. Sherif had looked at the policeman and suddenly realised that he had smoked too much hashish and was in a similar condition to himself, detached from reality. After driving away from the scene, he had laughed to himself.
“I don’t think that I’ll meet a stoned policeman again today. It’s better to take a taxi,” Sherif told himself, opening the elevator door with a key.
He saw a small crowd of people by a bridge. The police were kept away from them by a stream of cars; they did not chase them but just watched the protesters, occasionally grabbing lingerers.
A man emerged from the crowd of demonstrators and stopped the taxi. “Please help us,” he said to the taxi driver. “Don’t drive any further. We need to stop traffic to block the street from the police.”
The driver looked at Sherif, who was sitting beside him, covering his mouth and nose with his hand and trying to block out the strong smell of tear gas. Sherif nodded his head approvingly.
“That’s OK,” the taxi driver said.
A traffic jam was soon created with cars lined up behind one another, signalling and blocking the street, making barricades. Now the police could do nothing but stand and watch the people behind the cars.
Sherif got out of the taxi and felt the acrid smell of tear gas even more, burning and irritating his nose and throat. Soon, more pops of the tear gas were heard and the smell intensified. The police were trying to smoke out demonstrators from the small area. Then there were sounds of single gunshots; they were firing rubber bullets. Demonstrators continued to stand and shout slogans, but when the gunshots started, some of them became confused and frightened and ran across the street, manoeuvring between cars to find their way out between road junctions.
People in civilian clothes appeared out of the darkness, as if from nowhere, targeting a few protesters, grabbing them by the arms and dragging them away. It was useless to resist; these were professional police and secret service officers in disguise. They took their victims to a nearby group of police, where they disappeared into the black mass, were beaten and dragged to inconspicuously parked police wagons, and then transported to prisons.
Sherif was afraid of being mistaken for an oppositionist and decided to go to the square in a roundabout way.
“I’ll have to wait a while until everything calms down,” he thought. He walked around the area for some time, until he came to Talaat Harb Street, where he met three students who were in the second year at his university. They boasted that they had been in the demonstrations at Tahrir.
“Professor, what are you doing here?” asked a student, whose father worked in the Ministry of Interior Affairs.
“I’m looking for my niece. She was in Tahrir, but now her mobile isn’t getting coverage. I have to check that she hasn’t been arrested,” he answered.
“We are with you, Professor,” said the student. “It’s dangerous to be there alone. You could be arrested.”
It was three hours after midnight, and the four of them walked with slow steps towards Tahrir Square. Sherif was afraid that he might be arrested and put in jail, just for being in the Square at the wrong time. His students, sensing the professor’s mood, cheered him up with jokes and anecdotes about the police and the situation in the country.
“It’s their youth. They take life simply and are carefree. I wasn’t serious either, at their age,” Sherif thought, walking now more confidently.
The square was already empty. There was not a single protester about, and even the police and the secret service officers were gradually leaving. Fumes from the tear gas had cleared, but the pungent odour still hurt his eyes, causing a sore throat and nausea.
He went to a policeman and explained to him that he was looking for his niece and was worried that she might have been arrested. The policeman sent him to a secret service officer, who was standing about ten metres away.
“There are no women among the prisoners. You can go yourself and look,” the officer said, pointing to the police wagons.
“I believe you.”
“Come on. You can look.”
“I trust you,” Sherif said and walked back towards his students.
However, the students were no longer where he had left them. He looked around for some time, until he saw them in the distance, being escorted by police officers in the direction of the police wagons. He suddenly realised that they had been arrested.
“Wait a minute, they are my students,” Sherif said to the policeman.
“Maybe, but they look suspicious,” the policeman said, looking away. “They are participants. We know what we are doing. If they are innocent, we’ll let them go.”
He wanted to stand up for his students and express his disagreement, but thinking that this was not the time to prove his bravery, he walked away, feeling indignant. He turned his head and spotted two young women standing nervously nearby. They appeared to be sisters; the older girl was holding the hand of the younger one, who was smaller and more fragile.
“They’ll take him away soon. How am I going to find him?” the younger sister said to the older one.
“Calm down. They will release him. They’ll keep him for a few days and then let him go. You’ll see your fiancé again soon,” the older one answered with a confident voice. She looked thoughtfully at Sherif and asked him, “Are you looking for someone as well?”
“Yes, for my niece.”
“Please, describe her. Maybe we’ve seen her.”
Sherif described Jamila and then added that she was a young girl, inexperienced, and he was afraid that something bad might have happened to her.
“Well, well,” the girl said thoughtfully, with narrowed eyes. She scrutinised Sherif once again. “Yes, I’ve seen her. Don’t worry, she seemed fine. She was not alone; she was with some men. She will be found.”
Sherif calmed down, and once again called Jamila. This time she answered.
“What’s wrong? Where are you?” Sherif was talking loudly on the phone, but seeing the nearby policeman looking at him, he lowered his voice. “Jamila, don’t stay silent. Are you all right?”
“I am in a house close to the square, on the tenth floor, in an apartment. A kind man has hidden us. There are a lot of us. I can’t leave these people, but if we leave altogether now, we’ll be arrested.”
“I see,” Sherif answered. “It seems everything has calmed down here. They won’t arrest you if you don’t go back to the square straight away. Don’t hurry. Come out one by one, or in pairs, and if you’re approached, just say that you are residents of the house. Let’s meet in an hour, at four.”
Jamila looked out of the window of the apartment, over the mist-covered square, and saw the small dark figures of policemen, looking like shadows. They had been so close a few hours ago and had been ready to arrest her; now she was scared at the sight of them. It seemed to her that she and her friends were trapped and if they didn’t start leaving the house, the police would figure out where they were. Their group of eight was lucky that the owner of the apartment had opened the front door and invited them inside. Initially, there had been more of them, but when they had been chased by the police, a few people had fallen behind and been captured.
Kate stood nearby talking briskly with the landlord, who was an intelligent-looking elderly man with a grey beard and glasses. She was in an excited, buoyant mood. Alexey was tired; he sat alone at the table, sipping tea slowly, watching people communicating. Shortly after arriving at the square, they had been interrupted by the appearance of the police. A coincidence had saved them; they had met Jamila, who was also trying to leave the square when she saw Kate with Alexey, standing out from the crowd.
“There are so many coincidences in life. I helped Kate and Alexey and then the landlord helped all of us. If he had not helped us, we would now be in the back of a stuffy packed wagon, heading to the nearest police station,” Jamila thought as she walked towards Alexey.
“Listen, Alexey. I’m thankful that you came to the demonstration and supported us, but it was very risky and reckless of you too. Please understand that you are more noticeable because you are foreigners. You are a target for the police.”
Alexey was about to blame Kate, to explain to Jamila that it had been her idea to come here, but after looking into her still childishly naïve eyes, he decided against it. He fell silent. Jamila also fell silent, quietly stood up, and then went to the kitchen, which was separated from the lounge by a bar, and put the kettle on.
Alexey continued sitting, when suddenly a blond man with Slavic features, like a character from a Russian fairy tale, started speaking to him.
“Are you Russian?” he asked Alexey.
“Yes I am.”
“I’m Egyptian. My name is Tamir, but you can call me Timur. My grandfather, grandmother, aunt and father lived in Moscow in the ’60s,” said Timur. “My grandfather worked in the Egyptian Embassy in Moscow. My grandmother learned Russian in the Moscow State University. Moscow is very beautiful. I was told a lot about it. I know the Bolshoi Theatre Company. They performed ‘Swan Lake’ at the Cairo Opera House. My dream is to read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ in Russian.
“Is Red Square beautiful?” Timur asked Alexey in Russian. “One teacher has told me that ‘red square’ means ‘beautiful square’.”
“Yes, ‘red’ meant beautiful in the old Russian language. The square was called beautiful, but when the meaning of word was changed, they forgot to rename it.”
“What about vodka and water? Are they related words?”
“No, they are different words,” Alexey said. “Although maybe the word ‘vodka’ originated from the word ‘water’. They have the same origins. By the way, I really like Egyptian vodka. It is soft and you drink it like water. It even has a different smell, hardly perceptible.”
“No. Egyptian vodka is bad, Russian is good. Egyptian vodka head hurt, Russian vodka head not hurt,” said Timur.
“We have to go,” Jamila came over to say to Alexey.
“See you tomorrow. Call me in the morning,” Timur said to Alexey and wrote his phone number on a piece of paper. “I mean, at three pm.”
“Some people in Egypt start their morning at two or three o’clock in the afternoon,” Jamila explained to Alexey, when they left the apartment. “If they say ‘Let’s meet in the morning’, they don’t mean morning, but noon or afternoon.
“If you have agreed a certain time, be ready to wait for someone. To wait and to be late is our order of things. If you show your discontent, you won’t be understood, because our time is not accurate. The American saying, ‘time is money,’ doesn’t work here, as our time goes differently. By showing neglect for time, we show that we are not pragmatic and we are not in a hurry, because we enjoy life.”
They left the house. Silence was all around them. The city had been plunged into a heavy early morning sleep.
“Meet my friends, uncle. These are Kate and Alexey,” Jamila said to Sherif as he approached them.
Sherif flagged down a taxi and decided to invite the foreigners to stay the night with him, because going to Maadi – where Kate and Alexey were staying – was a long and inconvenient journey; but first they had to take Jamila home to her parents’ house, which was not far from Zamalek.
“And now, home,” Sherif said, yawning, after they had dropped Jamila off. He quickly gave directions to the taxi driver.
A few minutes later, Sherif said that he wanted to go to the place that sold alcohol illegally, to buy a bottle of Scotch whisky.
“It’s been an intense day; I want to relax. Don’t worry, the police won’t touch the place; it’s a titbit for them. They only go there once a month for their bribes.”
The taxi drove through Zamalek^^20^^ for a long time, winding through narrow lanes to the right and to the left, before eventually stopping outside a mobile shop. Sherif got out and walked into the small shop, which was open round the clock. Five minutes later, he came out of the store and walked over to a young man dressed in a dark jacket. The young man waved his arms and indicated that Sherif should get back into the taxi. Maybe the rules did not allow them to converse with customers. He walked around the taxi, inspecting it, then went to a jeep which was parked in front of the taxi, and opened the trunk to reveal fifteen bottles of different brands of alcohol. After looking through the bags, he reached into a white bag, grabbed a bottle of aged single malt whisky and took it to Sherif.
Alcohol smugglers sold drinks at a higher price than in the duty-free shop and, given that it was only possible to buy locally produced alcohol legally in this country, it was a mystery to everybody how they could organise a regular supply of famous imported brands.
“What are your plans? I think you’d better leave the country,” Sherif said, pouring whisky into glasses. “Something serious is going to happen in the country. I don’t think everything will finish with today’s protests. The unrest has spread throughout Egypt.”
“I would like to take part in the demonstrations,” a sleepy Kate uttered. “At least, I want to observe events for some time, and then I’ll decide.”
“As for me, I’m sorry that I didn’t go out with my friends onto the streets today. When I saw how many people were gathered in Tahrir, and how the police dispersed them, I felt solidarity with them. It’s a pity that people in our country can’t express their disagreement and protest on the streets, like in England or France. The authorities constantly intimidate us, and constantly keep us in fear. They are afraid of demonstrations. Before, when the opposition planned a large demonstration, they urgently arranged a football match and all the people went to watch football instead of going to the demonstration. Football is one of the Egyptians’ weaknesses. We are true fans, but no matches were planned for today, although I am sure that the authorities knew about the upcoming protest in advance. Today, all the players came out onto the streets alongside the people,” Sherif said with a smile. “It says a lot. It says that all the people stood up, including the elite and middle class.”
It was dawn. The night’s darkness was dispelling above the city and the sky was turning pink. The call to Morning Prayer, Fajr, resounded from minarets all around. Soon the prayer started and the Imam began to repeat diligently with a gentle tone of voice, “Allahu Akbar.” This ritual was the same now as it had been every day for hundreds of years. In spite of hardships, diseases, wars and uprisings, people read the Morning Prayer, facing in the direction of Mecca and chanting verses from the Koran. Indeed, Fajr is the most blessed Salat and it symbolises birth and the beginning of life, the beginning of a new day. No one knew what this new day would bring – the day after one that had brought a breath of freedom. Everybody believed and hoped – some by praying and some by dreaming – for a new life.
“What were you doing in Israel?” a young security officer asked Robert. He was leafing through the pages of Robert’s passport and studying all his visas.
“I’ve been travelling.”
“Where were you before Israel?” he continued.
“Egypt,” Robert said.
“What did you do there?”
“I celebrated the New Year.”
“Good. You can go,” said the security officer, handing Robert his passport.
He went further on, following the line of people, and after passing his suitcase through a scanner, bumped into another security officer.
“What’s your name?” the questioning started again. “Why are you visiting Israel?”
“How did you come to Israel?”
“I came from Egypt.”
“What did you do there?”
“I celebrated the New Year.”
“You can go,” the security officer snapped.
His luggage was laid on a table, and several objects were put aside in a plastic container to be analysed further by a young employee wearing gloves. Sophisticated equipment stood in the centre of the room, into which she inserted each object, and after a few strange manoeuvres, followed by hissing sounds and ultraviolet rays, looked at the data on the screen and then took the container back.
“What’s your name?” asked another security officer, who had appeared out of the blue.
There were more questions after that about Robert’s parents’ names, their place of residence and his age.
“What is your reason for visiting Israel?” a familiar question pealed.
“Travelling,” Robert said, slightly irritated.
“How did you come to Israel?”
“I came from Egypt.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I celebrated New Year with my friends.”
“How are they related to you?”
“What do you mean? They are my friends,” Robert said.
It seemed to him that these people, repeating memorised questions, were like robots that had lost the ability to think and acted according to precise regulations.
“Where are they from? From which countries?” a security officer continued his interrogation.
“From different countries: the U.K., Egypt, the U.S., Russia, and Germany.”
“Can you tell me their names?”
“Why?” he answered.
“Don’t contradict me.”
“I didn’t contradict you.”
“Why exactly did you go to Egypt for the New Year?”
“Because I wanted to celebrate it with my friends,” Robert answered monotonously, waiting for the end to this meaningless conversation.
“Did you pack your things yourself?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did anyone pass you anything before the flight?”
“No, nobody did.”
The young man left and walked to the girl who had analysed his belongings; he spoke to her for about five minutes, waving Robert’s passport, then he came back to Robert, holding his mobile phone, which had been dismantled.
“Where are your instructions for the phone?” he asked Robert with an aggressive tone.
“I don’t have any. Why would I need any?” Robert replied, feeling the wave of irritation growing with each question asked.
“And what is this book? Why do you have a book in Arabic?” his tormentor asked, waving the book in his face. “How are you related to this language?”
“I know a little bit of Arabic.”
“We have found an Arabic scarf, a keffiyeh. Where did you get it?”
“It’s a gift from a very good person. He’s my friend, a Bedouin.”
“Are you sure that this person is reliable? Why do you accept gifts from the Bedouins? Why have you been to other Arab countries?” a young man fired questions at him, hoping that Robert would collapse under the pressure.
“I love travelling,” Robert answered.
“That’s all?” An officer looked at him acidly.
“When did you buy a ticket to Tel Aviv?” he asked, in a louder voice.
“A week before the flight,” Robert answered.
“A week before? Don’t you think it’s strange that you only bought a plane ticket just a week before departure?”
“Are you OK?” a flushed Robert asked loudly. He was no longer able to hold back the surge of emotions, which broke his patience like a dam.
“What did you say? Repeat it,” the young man said, looking furiously at Robert.
“I just doubt your mental abilities,” Robert said, more calmly.
“You will regret what you’ve just said. You won’t leave Israel,” the young man yelped.
“That’s fine. I will live here,” Robert grinned.
The security officer took out his walkie-talkie and screamed something in Hebrew; soon after, another security service officer, who seemed to be more polite, came from the other end of the lounge.
“Follow me,” he said with a courteous voice.
The employee led him for a long time through many corridors, opening numerous doors with a pass along the way. When they finally entered an office, which resembled a hospital treatment room, he took Robert’s wallet, shoes and belt, and left. After coming back, the officer carefully frisked Robert, who felt like he had come to a masseur.
“You can’t take your laptop; we’re going to have to check it,” the young man said, after Robert had returned from the inspection. “It will take a day, or two days at most. Also we are interested in your Arabic books, the camera and the scarf. They will be analysed as well. We’ll send them to you separately with your airline’s next flight.”
“But what if you lose them? Where is my guarantee? It’s not a direct flight; I have a stopover in Frankfurt.”
“We can’t make you any guarantees,” he said, putting the laptop, camera and other things in a plastic tray.
Robert turned away and walked towards the registration desk.
“Wait, you can’t go there,” the young man shouted.
“Sorry, check-in has just finished,” an airline attendant said politely.
“Please, try to do something. I have to fly today,” Robert begged her.
“You are not supposed to go over there! Come back. Come back now!” shouted security officers, interrupting each other as they rushed toward Robert.
“Unfortunately, we can’t check you in; and besides, boarding has finished and we have to follow regulations. According to the regulations, we can’t check in a passenger twenty minutes prior to departure, but we can exchange your ticket for tomorrow’s flight without any extra charge.
“Come back quickly,” ordered a uniformed young woman who had reached Robert first, and grabbed his elbow.
“Please give me back my belongings. I’m leaving. I’ve missed the plane, I don’t need to check in,” he said.
He wearily put his scattered belongings into a suitcase, along with his dismantled cell phone and laptop, and walked out of the airport.
Morning Tel Aviv was beginning to awaken from her slumber. An invigorating freshness soared in the air and the rays of the sun were still weak and tender. An azure sea, retreating away into distance, merged with the skyline. The streets were still empty and sleepy shop owners opened roll shutters like eyelids, baring glass showcases flooded with awakened sunlight. High-rise buildings and skyscrapers had been left in silent solitude, not yet disturbed by the hustle of office workers. The lanes of old Jaffa had not yet been touched by crowds of tourists, the Wishing Bridge was empty and the Gate of Faith was protruding alone from among the trees.
The uniform architecture of Bat Yam could be seen from the taxi. Robert was going to his friends – Pavel and his wife Anastasia – who lived in that district.
A still sleepy Pavel opened the door to Robert and looked amazed as he let him into the small cosy apartment. There was no hallway; the door led straight into a small studio room, with a tiny kitchen located inside. The bedroom was no bigger than the studio, but it had more light because of its large window, which almost touched the floor, and you could walk out into the courtyard. Pavel sometimes threw parties in the courtyard, causing his neighbours upstairs to complain.
Pavel had come to Tel Aviv from Kharkov two years ago. After marrying a Jewish classmate who had the right to claim citizenship in Israel, he had hitchhiked around Western Europe with his wife and had gone to the U.K., where they had met Robert and befriended him. The trip changed their outlook on life and, after returning home, they had started thinking about immigration. Soon his wife filed documents to the Israeli Embassy, and after six months of waiting, an immigrant and repatriate arrived in Tel Aviv.
“We are having a barbecue in the courtyard this evening. You are invited, of course,” Pavel said to Robert.
The majority of Bat Yam’s population consisted of immigrants from the former U.S.S.R, who had moved there after the collapse of their country. The Russian language was heard here often, sometimes signboards in Russian could be seen, and in grocery stores, nostalgic immigrants could buy goods that had been imported from their native countries. Ukrainian wheat vodka could be found on the shelves, next to Russian canned beef, soup in glass jars, canned sprats and baked pastries.
Visiting this type of grocery store softened the homesickness of immigrants who had recently left their motherland. For people who had left a long time ago, these products united them with friends during meetings and parties. After drinking a shot of wheat vodka, they forgot their problems, and the distant country of their childhood and adolescence was revived in their memories and became closer in their hearts.
The country from which they came seemed to be a distant and alien place for many of them, but here they still did not feel as if they were home. This feeling is typical to many immigrants when their homeland is no longer a homeland and the country that is their new home is not yet familiar enough to be a homeland. That’s why a person lives in between – they’re not here and they’re not there. They understand that they are strangers everywhere, and they are perceived as being strangers because they are immigrants. When they go back to their motherland for holidays and meet family and friends, they feel that after soaking in another country’s culture, they behave differently. Their old friends and relatives see changes in them and a degree of mental distance; they perceive them as outsiders. They try to be polite, cordial and helpful and show care and attention, but a touch of envy is created by recurring thoughts that a person lives better in their new country where there are more opportunities and the sun shines brightly all the year round. Then envy creates falsity; good feelings are overshadowed with a darkness, coloured with negativity towards the person, and after a while a distance opens up between the two sides. They think that they have outstayed their welcome in their homeland, which has already become unfamiliar, and they miss their new home. They want to return to where they have a job, a family, and a place where they are understood and accepted. They know that their struggles will continue, but they return as quickly as possible, without waiting for the end of the holiday. Then, after returning home, they indulge in reliving memories while drinking a glass of vodka, which will drag them nostalgically to the country of their childhood, lost to them forever.
“Today, I was treated like a potential criminal and they made it clear that they could do anything they wanted to me and that I wouldn’t have any rights,” Robert explained, chewing a piece of meat cooked on the grill in Pavel’s courtyard.
“We have to be cautious; otherwise we’ll be eaten by our neighbours. That’s why we have such strict security measures,” Pavel said and was interrupted immediately by his wife.
“Guys, that’s enough talk about politics. Let’s have a drink,” she suggested.
“Yes,” Pavel agreed. “Let me give you a glass of genuine Ukrainian vodka.”
Pavel produced a bottle of vodka and, after pouring some into each guest’s glass, handed Robert a plate of pickled cucumbers.
“You should have some vodka with pickled cucumbers. You drink it in one gulp and eat the cucumber,” Pavel said, showing Robert how it was done.
Robert tried to drink a shot of vodka in one gulp, but its sharp flavour burned his throat because he wasn’t used to it, and he drank only half the glass.
“Strong vodka,” Robert justified himself.
“We still have pork fat. You can have vodka with pork fat,” Pavel said.
“I’ll bring you some now. I don’t remember what you call it in English,” Pavel said, and stood up.
“It’s lard!” Robert exclaimed when Pavel returned.
“Yes. It’s Ukrainian lard. It’s very tasty with vodka.”
“I thought that it was forbidden for Jews to eat pork. Have you been converted to Judaism?” Robert asked Pavel.
“Yes. I went through Giyur.”
“Have you been circumcised?
“Yes. I’ve been circumcised,” Pavel said, and after throwing back another shot of vodka, he sniffed the lard.
They talked for a long time about life in Israel and about Robert’s adventures in Egypt. After that, Anastasia started singing heartfelt Ukrainian songs along with her friend, and Pavel joined in with their singing.
The January night was unusually warm for that time of year, and after drinking vodka, Robert felt even warmer. His head was spinning. Pavel opened a second bottle of vodka, which was drunk easily with Ukrainian food, and noisy songs and laughter followed.
Robert went to Ben Gurion airport the next morning. This time, he was asked fewer questions and the belongings in his bag were not checked as closely. Robert was tense and he was expecting the worst – a repetition of the incident from the previous day – but the security officers were friendlier and he quickly passed the check-in for the flight to Frankfurt.
Kosher red wine had a tart intense taste and thoughts swept through Robert’s head with the flow of wine, stirring memories and images. Today he had arrived at the airport too early, and he had a lot of time to think. He felt bitterness that his journey was coming to an end, and he was returning home to his problems. What was waiting for him? Coldness and the search for a job. Here, he had adventures and a rich life. He recalled that during the trip, he had parted with his loved one. After breaking up with her, he had been left with emptiness. Her face, events associated with her and snippets of their conversations flashed up in his memory, like the fading flames of a log fire.
“No, there is no way back. She betrayed me,” he thought, sitting at the bar, and he raised his head. His eyes caught a flat-screen TV, which showed a demonstration, a crowd of people carrying posters in Arabic and the police standing aside in a waiting position.
“Is it Tunisia again?” he asked a bartender.
“No. It’s Egypt,” the bartender answered.
“Egypt? What’s going on there?”
“An uprising. The next Arab revolution is coming.”
Robert smiled, and turned his attention back to the screen. As he watched the reports, the heaviness in his heart evaporated and a new enthusiasm grew. Now, memories of his participation in previous protests began to play in his mind, and after mixing them with the television programme flickering before his eyes, he imagined himself in the scenes he was watching. His drunken mind depicted breathtaking footage from a movie, where he was one of the main characters, a fighter for democracy in Egypt. He felt joy. He saw a path before his eyes and he realised that this was his destiny.
“Egypt. I’m flying to Egypt. Freedom, equality and fraternity!” He raised his hand in a fist and shouted the last words triumphantly, surprising the bartender.
This is it: a prison for criminals and political prisoners; a gloomy grey building with dark grey cells and an oppressive atmosphere, soaked with dampness and stench. However, the eyes of prisoners burned with a flame of hope, which kept them away from complete bitterness, giving them a breath of life.
Said was driven to the prison in a stuffy crowded police wagon, and they arrived during afternoon Salat. Some workers and wardens were still praying on mats laid out at the side of the administrative building; the new prisoners, guarded by two soldiers, were released from the police wagon and made to wait until Salat finished.
“Your date of birth?”
“Your age, education, marital status?” More questions followed, and the answers were written in the card index after each man walked into the reception room.
The conveyor belt of the prison machine processed the newcomers swiftly and systematically.
Said’s fingerprints were taken, his profile and full face were photographed and then, along with the other newcomers, he was led to the shower, provided with a prison uniform and escorted into a cell.
He looked around. The cell was like a vegetable garden; it was divided into small sections occupied by cellmates, and these had to be bypassed in zigzags by gingerly stepping over legs. Handmade electric stoves stood among mattresses, rugs, blankets and sheets, along with the scattering of a few belongings, consisting of food, cans, saucepans, aluminium bowls and other utensils. The centre of the cell was divided by a metre-wide passage, giving some privacy to the prisoners located around it.
Said found a place in the corner, away from the commode. He sat on a bare cold cement floor and, after observing the inmates for a short time, he waved his hand in greeting. Some paid no attention to him at all, some waved in response and several people approached him, introduced themselves and shook his hand.
The atmosphere in this cell, compared with the previous one, was more amicable. It was noticeable that many of the prisoners were educated people with a firm position in life, previously unblemished by criminal offences. Although life in the cell embittered them, it did not deprive them of the most important thing – a core, defining their values like a compass. Moreover, violence, abuse and torture had exacerbated their rejection of injustice and thirst for freedom. There were, however, a few men who could not stand the pressure and had broken under the strain. There was only one goal for them – to survive, no matter what. They dodged, snitched to the prison top-brass, created intrigue and conflict and asserted themselves without remorse.
Said was given a portion of fuul, grey and slightly hard, but nourishing. He filled two pieces of flat bread with it and ate it slowly, smacking his lips. From previous experience, he knew that if he ate quickly the hunger did not disappear immediately; chewing slowly helped to satisfy the appetite, and he savoured every mouthful, enjoying the sensation. Food was a gift, which he had learned to appreciate during his time spent in detention. Food in prison had an entirely different meaning than it did outside. It was far more significant.
How ironic life is: we do not appreciate what we have until it is gone; we neglect it and take it for granted. We use what we have without expressing gratitude to people, destiny and life, and we only understand it fully when we lose it all. We realise what it means to live without what we had become accustomed to: good conditions, normal food and loved ones. You understand twice as much in prison, because you know that you cannot compensate for what you have lost, except through release. You have only one thing left: the belief that everything will return – necessities, loved ones and friends, along with your former self and your former life.
Darkness descended over the prison as evening twilight fell on the cell. The only bulb had gone off several weeks ago because the shared electric cookers had overloaded the power supply, blocked out sockets and blown out the lamp, which had flashed brightly before going off completely. The sockets had been switched on again, but the wardens had not changed the bulb, so now they had to sit in the pitch black, gaining relief through the sporadic use of matches and lighters, which temporarily illuminated the cell. It was forbidden to bring flammable items to the prisoners, but an hour later, one of the prisoners took out two big fat candles, which he inexplicably produced from somewhere, and the cell was illuminated with dim light, projecting huge shadows of people and objects on the walls. Everybody in the cell woke up and came to life; people who had earlier sat silent in the darkness suddenly stirred and began to talk, read newspapers and sort out their provisions.
Said watched these people, who acted as if nothing unusual was happening in their lives, as if they were at home rather than in prison. He looked into their eyes and studied their facial expressions, trying to guess what they were thinking. His thoughts were overflowing, but his eyes were gradually closing; he wanted to sleep. There was no mattress but he had been given a dirty sheet a few hours ago, which he now placed on the cold floor before lying down. It was uncomfortable on the hard surface, but he quickly fell asleep, exhausted; he woke up several times with a pain in his side and turned over to the other one.
He drifted in and out of sleep, abruptly waking to lie with open eyes for some time, before being immersed in a haze, as if in a state of sleep and wakefulness at the same time. In the haze, he saw his home and he opened the apartment door with his key. He walked into it slowly, happy that he had finally returned. He saw his mother washing dishes in the kitchen and occasionally wiping tears away with the hem of her robe. He walked down the hall leading from the kitchen, and then peered into his parents’ room, to see his father wearing horn-rim spectacles and reading a newspaper. Only a floor lamp lit the room and the dim colours made it tranquil and comfortable. He opened the door to his room and found everything intact. Suddenly, he felt a strong, cold chill passing through his body and he wanted to warm up. He lay in his bed, wrapped himself in a blanket and, feeling snug in the soft bed, fell asleep, gradually feeling warmth envelop him in peace and bliss. He felt good and he lay there for a while until an unpleasant, growing noise jerked him out of his comfortable dream. He thought the sound was like that of a saw, turning into a loud, monotonous grinding. He opened his eyes and saw a neighbouring inmate lying nearby, itching hard and frantically; his neighbour had scabies. After more scratching, the man rested for a while, but then the scratching intensified and he scratched red stripes into his skin, making it bleed.
The next day began more pleasantly. Said became acquainted with several of his fellow inmates: they struck up conversations; they listened to his stories and then shared their own; and they found him interesting.
“It all started when our stroll was reduced from one hour to half an hour because two prisoners had a fight,” said Mustafa, a bearded middle-aged man who occupied a place just behind the guy with scabies. “One of them, a big guy, who looked more like a thug than a political prisoner, smashed the head of the younger guy. We were on the side of the young one and wanted the thug to be punished; instead, they punished everybody in the cell. The chief warden said that it was the fault of the whole cell, and deprived us of the fresh air and sunlight that we got outside in the courtyard. Only now are we allowed to walk outside again. For a long time, we could only walk in the atrium.
“A few days later, they stopped providing us with fresh bread; instead we received old, dry, flat bread which was at least a week old and almost inedible. Bread is our main meal. We were starving, in spite of our deliveries.
“Our patience finally ran out because of the water. It was very dirty and contained rust and sand. We used filters made from clothes and rags in order to clean it, but it didn’t help. Some of us got sick; I started having stomach cramps and others had problems with their stomachs, bladders and kidneys.
“We didn’t have the strength to tolerate it any longer, so we organised a hunger strike. We told all prisoners the day before that we would start banging spoons, cups and plates on command. The whole prison building shook from the clatter of aluminium pots, which we banged on the doors and window grids. It lasted for three hours. That day, we were deprived of dinner. We resumed our protest, hungry and even angrier. The next day, they didn’t give us any food and we weren’t allowed to go for a walk. This boosted our determination. We started in the morning: we sang, we shouted, we swore and we furiously battered the walls using everything we could find.
“After two days, we had almost run out of reserves from our deliveries, and the hunger was unbearable. Many people were lying and staring apathetically at the ceiling, or sitting in silence with closed eyes; some were asleep, but sleep would not come to most of us. Some called to others to admit defeat and ask the prison wardens to distribute at least some food among us. At the beginning of the strike, the traitors who didn’t join the protest were ignored; but when the hunger started, some of the inmates began to listen to those who were saying that the strike should be stopped; but we knew that we would be punished, so we delayed our surrender as long as we could.
“After the strike had finished we were all badly beaten. They lined us up and whipped us. Those who were suspected of organising the strike were pulled out from the line and led into another room where they walked through a rank of soldiers, who beat them even more. I was lucky that they didn’t discover me, although I was one of organisers. I remember they whipped me with a leather strap with a metal handle. For two weeks after that I could hardly walk, it was so painful.”
Mustafa also told Said other stories, impressing on him the brutality prevailing in this place.
“One day I was called for interrogation, and I was blindfolded and driven somewhere. I didn’t know where I was being taken; I just hoped that I wouldn’t be driven to the desert and shot. I heard there were cases where political prisoners had been driven to the desert, shot and then had their bodies buried in the sand. It’s a known fact that if a prisoner disappears, it means he has been either shot or tortured to death. In both cases, he would be buried in the desert and nobody would know where his grave was hidden.
“I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter what will come,’ and took my rosary beads, praying fervently. We eventually arrived at an unfamiliar place. When a door creaked and I was led through the corridors, I realised that I was in the offices of the state investigation department, a well-known punitive authority. I was interrogated, tortured, electrocuted and immersed in water. They tortured me brutally, but I prayed to Allah that they wouldn’t torture me to death. I desperately wanted to live. I even confessed to things that I hadn’t done. In the beginning, of course, I said nothing, but then I realised that it was better not to mess with them. After my confessions to non-existent crimes, they added another three years to my sentence. What else could I do?” Mustafa said, raising both hands with upturned palms.
After these stories, Said’s mood was low, and a fear awoke in him. He was scared of the uncertainty. He had been brought to the prison without investigation or trial. He did not know whether they intended to judge him or when, how long he would be kept here, or what exactly he would be accused of doing – but most of all, he feared the torture. The wounds and bruises that he had received in the previous prison had not yet healed and the pain resurfaced often. His spine ached, and a griping pain periodically arose in his lower back and hindered his walking. He felt physically exhausted, and he knew he might not be able to withstand more torture.
Despair, like a worm, rotted his heart, and sadness swept over him, holding him tightly in an invisible vice. Before, in moments of sorrow, he could console himself with memories of home, family, his fiancé or adventures, diverting his mind and warming his heart, but now nothing helped and he was plunged into wretched anguish, imagining the ordeals and hardship he might have to endure.
He sat in silence for some time, before lying down in his sleeping place, which was chilly and damp. That night the floor was wet because of a dripping tap, and a thin layer of water soaked the sleeping places. Some prisoners had bought cardboard from the warden and put it under their bedding. Said did not have the money for cardboard, so he laid two sacks, which Mustafa had lent him, and the dirty sheets, full of holes, on the top.
He tried to extinguish all thoughts, but they did not leave and, like clouds, thickened in his head until they burst, his tears falling like rain. He turned to the side and put his hand against his face so nobody would see him crying. He let the tears flow, gushing like a never-ending stream. He did not restrain them as they poured out from him; it was as if a part of him was being washed away, clearing his heart and at the same time nourishing it, and he felt humbled and liberated at the same time. The burden was gone, and a realisation of something higher, kind and loving, came to him with the sensation of faith that descended to him on a thin thread, enveloping his heart with a warm and gentle shroud.
Morning always breathed the freshness of the new day through the small barred window, but at the same time, it awakened the stench of sweat, rotten food, toilet and damp in the cell. It was a cocktail of smells, elements of which stood out distinctly, depending on the location and wind direction. Most of all, the smell annoyed the prisoners who were near the toilet. Said would wake to the scent of the morning needs of the prisoners; the smell of faeces, urine and dampness from the constantly dripping tap made him nauseous. Although the human brain adapts to unpleasant smells and does not notice them after a time, these odours permeated deeply and could not be masked, however hard he tried, making him feel more despondent.
Said woke up shivering with cold and aching all over. He felt that all his body was falling apart, from head to toe. He tried to go back to sleep but he could not. He began shivering even more from the cold. His mouth was dry. He wanted to drink, but there was no water. It had been turned off again to punish the prisoners even more. He found one of the plastic bottles, which the prisoners had previously filled with water in order to flush the toilet and wash their hands. He splashed his face with shaky hands, poured a little water on his head and then sipped slowly from the bottle.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Mustafa, who was passing by with an aluminium mug and had noticed Said’s strange behaviour.
“I think I am sick. I have a fever and I need a doctor,” Said replied.
“Forget about a doctor. There are no doctors here. To be more exact, there are doctors here, but they will not come to you any time soon – maybe when you feel really bad – and even when they do come, aspirin will be the only medicine they’ll give to you. Yes, aspirin. It’s used for everything here: fever, heart pains, stomach aches, pneumonia, and even gallstones. They will give you a few aspirin and then leave you alone with the sickness.”
Said looked at him gloomily, thoughts of death running through his head. It seemed to him that it was wandering somewhere nearby, peering at him and waiting to take him unceremoniously, without procrastination and without asking.
“OK, don’t be scared. Look, a doctor will examine you if you pay him. A month ago, a guy got pneumonia. He paid around fifty pounds for a doctor and a hundred for a bed in the prison hospital. Call the warden and ask him for a doctor. It’s important to ask him in a soft and delicate manner. Apologise to him and ask for forgiveness. They love it when somebody creeps up to them. The sooner you call him, the better it’ll be for you; certainly he won’t come earlier than tomorrow. Drink more boiled water for now. You need warmth and liquid. Come with me, I’ll boil some water for you.”
The doctor did not come the next day, or the day after, but someone found antibiotic pills and, after taking them regularly with boiling water, Said improved. The disease was defeated and he was recovering, with sleep and a little food.
He had to be content with scarce repetitive prison food. Every day, his diet consisted of rice, lentils and fuul, varied only by different sour tastes. For the first two days, the food induced nausea, but hunger won over selectivity on the third day and he put up with any food he was given. The only thing that was hard to become accustomed to was the constant feeling of hunger. Small portions and the quality of the food did not allow him to be satiated. Cereals were poorly washed, as they found sand and stones in them. The sand could be ignored – it gritted obtrusively on the teeth but did not cause any harm – however, stones posed a greater threat. They were like cereals at first, but when they were discovered unexpectedly, it was too late: at best, they left a pain in the mouth; in the worst case, a piece of tooth came off. They were often found in the fuul, which was made from dirty, unwashed beans.
One day, after greedily attacking a hot portion of fuul, he discovered insects in it, small black bugs floating in dark yellow slurry that had looked like coarse seeds at first sight. He began to pick them out of the fuul and lay them on the edge of the plate, but there were so many insects that he just had to empty his portion and fill a waste tin with the contaminated fuul.
“What are you doing?” the neighbour with scabies shouted across to him. “It’s food! Why are you throwing it away?” he continued. “Bugs are nourishing, full of protein. Give me the tin.” He then swiftly reached out and dipped his fingers in the tin. The man licked his fingers, smacked his lips and, delighted that he had found a supplementary meal, took a piece of flat bread and thoroughly polished off the food, grabbing more insect infested fuul with his hands. After devouring the food greedily, he licked his fingers clean, wiped the leftovers from his face and asked Said to share his spoilt food with him next time.
Apart from the repetitive daily food, once a week they were served a small piece of meat, cheese and a small plastic pot of jam that was considered a delicacy.
He was invited twice to share a table, laid out with food cooked from deliveries brought by friends and relatives who visited detainees every fifteen days, with the exception of new arrivals who had no one visiting them. Long hours of get-togethers were arranged in the same way as in the previous prison. During these ceremonies, the group of prisoners who had been allowed to share the food were revived, and noisy conversation turned into fun and laughter. One electric stove was often not enough and another one was brought; it would have to have a long cable, stretched out, with bare wires in some places, wriggling like a snake and connected to the central wiring on the ceiling.
After lunch, Said was lounging on his bedding, digesting food and picking pieces of rice out of his teeth when the warden showed up in the doorway, called him and led him out.
He was escorted into an office. Frightened and confused, he wondered what was happening.
“Read it,” the stern metallic voice of the investigator demanded.
“What is it?”
“What kind of confession? I didn’t give any confession.”
“Sign it. It will be better for you.”
Said took the sheet of paper and read the printed text slowly, where a confession to theft had been written.
“I won’t sign anything. I didn’t commit any theft. I never stole in my whole life.”
“Sign it, if you don’t want problems.”
“No, I refuse.”
“Are you sure you won’t sign? I’ll give you ten minutes to think. When I return to the office, I want to see the paper signed; otherwise, something which you won’t like will be waiting for you outside. It’s your choice.”
Said realised that he was not receiving any sentence for political reasons, possibly because they could not prove that he was guilty, as the authorities had insufficient evidence. Therefore, they were trying to impose a crime on him that he had not committed in order to punish him and put him in jail for a long time. He understood that if he signed the fabricated charges, he would sign himself up for a longer sentence.
Soon after, convinced that Said would not surrender, the investigator told him to leave the office. The warden opened the door and Said saw a dozen soldiers lined up outside, standing a step apart. As he walked between them, they began to beat him. The first soldier hit him with a long metal club. Said fell to the opposite side and felt a new blow, coming from the neighbour of the soldier who hit him first. Blows continued without stopping, driving him from one side to the other. Worn out and exhausted from the pain, he tried to dodge them and bent down in an effort to reduce the blows. Soon, he could no longer stand the pain and, hoping that they would not beat him on the ground, he fell to his knees and bowed his head to the floor before collapsing in a heap. Straight away, an unexpected kick struck him and he fell to one side. A sharp pain swiped through his face, he tasted bitter blood in his mouth and sparks flashed before his eyes. They continued beating him, on his back, stomach, and legs. Hits were raining down on him, each in a different place.
“Stop!” the investigator cried out. “You’ll kill him. Leave him.”
He was taken to another cell, the correction cell. It was a dingy place with a tiny, barred window at the top of a cement wall, a metal bucket instead of a toilet, and plastic bottles arranged in a row instead of a washbasin. There was generally not enough water and, because of that, the cell residents suffered from thirst, causing lethargy and dehydration. The bucket was not always emptied every day but instead was emptied according to some inexplicable schedule: sometimes, after one day and sometimes after two or three days. A pile of excrement with a sharp stench often formed next to it. Two filthy sheets, which had likely never been washed and which looked to be riddled with bullets, were lying on the floor. The only advantage of the correction cell compared to the previous cell was the presence of a light, which was provided by a bulb in a twisted wire, weakly lighting up every day for three hours – from six to nine in the evening.
Said lay on the floor. He felt a severe pain overwhelming him, as if he had been hit by a jackhammer. Physical pain is nothing compared to spiritual pain and the pain inside your heart, he thought. You can endure physical pain, but sometimes you have to live with spiritual pain for years and carry it deep inside, understanding that this pain is in you; this is not like the pain outside, which you can tolerate, which you can forget, remove like a splinter or be cured of. Anyway, bodily pain makes the spirit stronger.
“I have become much stronger; I’ve become a different person. Now I’m not afraid of any pain,” Said whispered to himself. “I am born again.”
It was a new birth through suffering, a recognition of the spirit itself, when a person extends himself to such limits that he begins to understand his spirit.
Time dragged incredibly slowly in the correction cell. Life turned into a monotonous unbroken stream, without day or night. Seconds were transformed into minutes and minutes into hours. It was a place of distorted time, tormenting them with the bleak expectation of release.
There were three of them in the cell, far less than in the general cell; there was an elderly man, around sixty years old; a man named Gamal, who was the same age as Said; and himself.
Gamal had been sent to the correction cell because of a mobile phone. At precisely the moment his mother had called him, the warden had come into the cell, seen the mobile and snatched it from his hand.
Gamal was a cheerful guy, careless and vibrant. He had tried many professions: he had been a builder, a salesman, a baker and a postman, but each job had only lasted a few months. He could not bear the monotony and had always sought novelty. Life for him was a continuous adventure and a gamble. He loved to travel. Sometimes, when he was tired of the hustle and bustle of Cairo, he would go to the desert, like a hermit, carrying only a sleeping bag and a few provisions. This way he could live away from civilisation for weeks, wandering across sands and finding oases. He was far away from politics. He was not interested in it at all and it was a mystery how he had become a political prisoner. Most likely it had been an accident, which Gamal did not want to disclose. When he was questioned about how he had been put in prison, he answered with jokes.
“Did you think about escaping from here?” Gamal asked Said one day.
“No. It’s impossible,” Said answered.
“I’ve been thinking about an escape plan for a long time. There are many ways; for example, you can hack a tunnel or exit in the wall. I’ve already started working. I slowly and carefully scrape pebbles from the wall with a peg. Another inmate showed me a plan of this building and the adjacent territory; he’s recently been released. The thing is that the wall of our cell is next to the ancillary facilities; from there you can get to the basement, and from there you can get into the sewage system to go beyond the prison. I even copied it onto a separate plan.”
“I don’t believe that will work out. Have you calculated how many months it will take for you to hack the exit?”
“I can’t do it without your help. We can dig in turns. We’ll work when we are least noticeable so that other inmates won’t see us. After all, you are a newcomer and you are not allowed to walk outside yet. So, you can work during the day’s stroll and I will work during the night, when everybody sleeps.”
“I don’t believe it will succeed,” Said remarked. “But of course we can try. At least we will have something to do for a change. The main thing is to work so that nobody will notice us.”
“Even if they notice, they will not betray us because there will be so many eager to run away with us. Each of them dreams of freedom. We’ll take them all with us; I’m not selfish,” Gamal said.
Although it was unlikely that Gamal’s plan would be fulfilled, the conversation about the prison break and about freedom, possible only in fantasies, gave Said optimism and confidence. He was inspired by Gamal’s decency, how he was willing to share with other prisoners the most valuable and important thing in life: freedom.
The next day, Gamal returned to the common cell. After several days, Said had forgotten about escape and his thoughts about freedom had faded into the background. A long stay in the cell suppressed his mind and he gradually retreated into his shell. He did not want to talk with anybody, neither with newcomers nor with old cellmates. There were five in the cell now, and he did not even know their names. Occasionally they exchanged greetings and had short conversations, which gave him temporary relief from his apathy and torpor.
When he returned to the general cell, he realised that he was no longer the same person. He had become tougher and stronger in spirit, but his brain had ceased to be flexible. He was lost in himself, he was not interested in people, the present did not touch him and the future did not bother him. His life turned into one continuous cycle without light or darkness, without colours and brightness. It was a grey stripe, which made his heart stale and emptied his soul; his self-preservation instinct worked hard and acquired new skills in order to survive.
He could not tell who had screamed those words, and he did not register them immediately in his consciousness, but in a moment, the realisation hit his eyes like a flash of light and forced his brain to wake up. He leapt up, his mouth open in surprise and, puzzled, he began to listen intently to conversations in the cell, changing from whispers to clear voices. A mood of hope swept across the cell. It seemed that people could not understand what had happened and asked each other several times. Then he heard expressions of joy and laughter, long forgotten in this place, and words, joyful and optimistic, full of hope and anticipation of something good and light, peering at them through the door of tomorrow and luring them out and away towards freedom.
At six o’clock in the morning, a rooster crowed on the roof. His sound was out of place with the noises of the city awakening and periodical honking of car horns. Alexey woke up and lay with his eyes open for a long time, trying in vain to fall asleep again.
He had become used to this city, a place where you had to respond quickly and where it was necessary to react to each detail, while fighting for survival, but at the same time keep your mind calm. He realised that he had to be vigilant in everything in this city: in letting a passing motorcycle or a car drive past; in crossing the road quickly; in weaving through a crowd of people to find the right place in the metro; and in waiting his turn for a meal in the café.
Here, in the kaleidoscope of life, changing at lightning-speed, you realise that your brain was spoiled by regular life and it was not used to performing several tasks at the same time. After coming here, at first you were surprised, then you started to be annoyed, but after some time you immersed yourself in the environment and started reacting in the same way as others – in a timely manner and naturally, without straining the psyche and without becoming confused. You reacted quickly, but at the same time, you acted without haste, in response to situations that have now become familiar. You gradually realised that time goes at a different pace here, and after making an appointment, you did not worry if you arrived on time, or half an hour or an hour later. You could sit in the café for hours without being anxious that you had to hurry somewhere. The morning started for you whenever you woke up. You were no longer afraid of the racing cars, and you could cross the street quickly without being nervous and panicked – sometimes smoothly and slowly manoeuvring past them, sometimes running across a broad street, like a camel in a race, feeling the distance with confidence, and realising that you would not be run over.
It was a quiet day: there were no noisy demonstrations or clashes. Individual meetings occurred sporadically and flared up for a short time, but they did not turn into flames of violent protest. There was a feeling that it was the calm before the storm, and the city was preparing for something important and decisive to happen. People worked, studied, took care of their families, and were occupied with routine things, like on any other day. Everything was still, but at the same time, everything had changed, and everyone knew it.
They had a big juicy, tasty and crispy feteer^^21^^ with chicken and vegetables for lunch, in a small restaurant opposite the Khan el-Khalili market. Kate was happy again. It seemed that peace had returned to her, and her unpredictable mood had vanished under the bright rays of the sun.
They went to the market. There were numerous dazzling shops selling souvenirs, clothing, spices and decorations, attracting the attention of passers-by, enticing them to touch and buy. The sellers saw foreigners and touted them in a row.
“Galabiya. Look, what a galabiya, my friend. It’s only a hundred and fifty pounds!” a seller of clothes shouted to Alexey.
“But it is worth no more than fifty,” Kate said. “Do you want to bargain?”
“Why would I need a galabiya?” Alexey exclaimed.
“Then buy a t-shirt,” said the salesman, after hearing his words. “Five for each one, five pounds. Come here, choose; they are for every taste.”
“Five pounds? Why are they so cheap?” Alexey said, surprised.
“They’re five British pounds or five American dollars,” the seller grinned innocently.
“A necklace, don’t you want a necklace?” cried out his neighbour with the chocolate face, who had dreadlocks on his head and was wearing a Rasta scarf.
“Choose. This one is forty pounds. It’s genuine stones, not plastic,” said the Rasta man, offering Kate a necklace with large blue stones that looked like azurite.
“Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” the Rasta man repeated, scrutinizing the necklace, now hanging round Kate’s neck.
“Fifteen,” Kate said.
“Fifteen,” Kate insisted.
“I won’t pay more than fifteen,” Kate said, returning the necklace to the Rasta man.
“OK. OK. Fifteen, if you take the necklace with the opal stones for thirty.”
“Done, fifteen for the blue one and twenty-five for the opal one.”
“Are you a Rasta man?” Alexey asked the necklace seller.
“Rasta man, Rasta man,” he replied proudly.
“Do you smoke?”
“No. I don’t smoke,” said the Rasta man, narrowing one eye.
“You bargain quite well,” Alexey said to Kate as they walked away.
“I have learned. You can’t live here without it.”
A man approached them outside a shop for herbs and spices and offered Kate anise grains, which she bought; then he led them to another shop, a perfume shop. He spoke for a long time about the benefits of natural perfume, gave them some to sniff, rubbed their hands with perfume, moved big vials with different liquids on the table and instilled in them the useful effects of perfume. However, Kate did not want to buy unknown perfume. Alexey did not show any reaction at first, but after a short while he started show interest in it, and then the bargaining began once again. Kate insisted on fifteen for the little vial, but the perfumer wanted forty. They bargained for more than ten minutes, left him and returned after his declaration of a lower price, then left again and returned once more. The seller was possessed; Kate was stubborn and she did not give up. He soon changed tactics, ran to the table, took out an album from it and started showing photos of tourists who had bought his goods.
“Look what clientele I have: they are from England, Germany, and Russia. Believe me, I have the best shop in the market,” the man said to them.
Alexey did not interfere in their conversation; he was watching the ongoing action and laughing. He understood that it was a sport, where the most stubborn would be the winner.
“OK. Fifteen, if you take two vials,” the seller conceded.
“No. I’ll only take one,” Kate insisted.
Alexey laughed even more, amused at the steadfastness of Kate. He had not imagined that she was such a professional at bargaining. He leaned against the table to see the offered perfume, and suddenly lost his balance, hitting a big vial with his hand, knocking it over. The seller reacted quickly and put the vial back in the same place, but some liquid had spilt out. Alexey looked suspiciously at the smiling seller. It seemed to him that they would be expected to pay compensation for the spilt perfume.
“Ok, we’ll take two vials,” Alexey said, before the seller could react.
The seller laughed: he had achieved his goal, and although it did not bring him much profit, he felt that he had not lost in this competition: they had come to a draw, with both sides conceding to each other.
The seller was delighted and gave them a gift – two bookmarks made from papyrus decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphs – and, after seeing their happy faces, he began to offer other vials filled with fragrant liquids to them. They promised to come back the next day and left swiftly, avoiding any more contact with the compulsive seller.
“This evening we will be together – just you and me,” Kate said. “No strangers, meetings or demonstrations. We will cook a lavish dinner, light candles and drink wine.”
Suddenly the phone rang and, as if to confirm her words, it was Sherif.
“Don’t go to Tahrir. Don’t even try to get there. The square is completely blocked by the police, there are a lot of them,” he said quickly and emotionally. “Everybody who goes near Tahrir is being taken to the police stations. Although there are small demonstrations in the city today, it’s better to save our energy for the ʻDay of Rage’; then we will organise something. It’s not too long to wait – two days. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
The dinner was modest, but the atmosphere that accompanied it was superb. Lighted candles with bright flames were displayed on the lacquered table, and they gave the dining room a mysteriously calming appearance. Their faces, reflecting the halo of the lights, became closer and more familiar, as if they had opened the doors to their hearts, which flashed naked in the doorways. The red lamp of Aladdin, lit in the room, immersed them even more into a state of harmony and unity. They felt good and relaxed. They were attracted to each other, and as Kate ate a strawberry, the juicy fruit, melting on her lips, invigorated Alexey, excitement flowing through his body with sweet bliss. He was intrigued as to how she put berries into her mouth synchronously and chewed them slowly, while enticing him after her, inside her.
Her bare breasts fluttered softly in his hands, but he wanted more and more. He wanted to absorb her completely and be absorbed, and be dissolved in her wet stream. She, like a wave, carried him further and further away, to places where day and night merged into one, where time ceased to exist. It was the unity of the two worlds, the unity of loving each other.
Two hours later, they were back on their feet. She wanted to go to the city centre, take a walk along the streets and enjoy the freshness of the onset of night. They held hands, looking in shop windows and chatting easily. The city sank into silence and was gradually emptying, until only the street cafés were left open, attracting visitors.
The small bar was filled to capacity with people, mostly older men, sloppy, bleary-looking and drunk, who sat by wooden tables and were immersed in a haze of tobacco smoke. They were relaxed and drank beer and brandy leisurely, sometimes separately, but sometimes drinking one drink with the other. The chairs and tables were arranged so close to each other that it was hard to pass between them without touching people.
Strangers often joined other tables due to the lack of vacant places, and immediately became acquainted with the people sitting nearby, joined their group and exchanged alcohol and cigarettes with them. Soon the neighbours shook hands, embraced each other and swore everlasting friendship, which no one would remember the next day.
The appearance of Alexey and Kate in the bar caused great interest among the public. Everybody stopped talking, drinking or smoking and abruptly looked in their direction, as if on command, and began to study the foreigners carefully.
A bartender led them to a table, at which two old men were sitting, carelessly chatting about something, sipping brandy directly from the bottle. They looked happy and relaxed as if they did not have a clue what was happening in the country.
“Where are you from?” the old man with a neatly trimmed grey beard asked Alexey.
“From Russia,” he answered.
“Rossija,” Alexey said in Russian.
“Rossija. Belarussia?” The old man’s face stretched into a smile.
“Ah. Russia. Friends, friends,” the old man exclaimed joyfully and began to shake hands with Alexey.
They tried to talk, but the English of the old man consisted of only a few words; however, his emotional gestures replaced many of the words and helped to keep the conversation going. After drinking, they started talking about the foreign policy and the current situation in Egypt. The old man described Mubarak, turning his thumb down, and said that the president should leave. Alexey supported him and explained with gestures and words that he was for the protest movement. The old man tried to communicate with Alexey for some time, but then, realising that his limited English vocabulary did not allow them to continue a meaningful conversation, stopped and patted him on the shoulder. He turned to his friend, an elderly man wearing glasses, who was looking at a young guy in a black jacket, sitting alone at the bar and lovingly holding a guitar.
The guitarist smiled at Kate, positioned his guitar to play, and started singing the melancholy and romantic notes of a beautiful lyrical song in a low voice. His eyes sparkled, and a kind and warm feeling, desire and a sense of the unattainable, appeared in them as if manifested by his voice. Everyone smiled and fell into a nostalgically contemplative state, as if they were searching in the depths of their minds for long-forgotten memories, leaving deep tracks. He forgot the attention of the audience in the bar and, as if he was hypnotizing them, led them into a different reality, where love was fresh and young, and sparkling with overwhelming feelings. The audience began to sing along with him, some clapping to the beat of the music.
He was singing about her, about how beautiful and unattainable she was, and how she emitted a bright light, illuminating the way, like from the moon. He was dreaming about her; he wanted to get close, but he could not because he was unworthy of her. He deserved only to kiss the ground where she walked and the hands of the people with whom she talked. At night, he looked up at the sky and saw two stars, which reminded him of her eyes. He loved her and she was the goal in his life.
After he finished, the guitarist sat down at their table and explained the meaning of his song.
“How lovely,” Kate exclaimed.
“This song is about my love for you,” Alexey said, whispering, kissing her on the neck and stroking her hair. “You are everything to me: the sun, the moon, the sea and the land.”
Kate giggled with pleasure; as Alexey put his head on her shoulder, she gazed distractedly towards a group at the bar. After noticing that some of the men were looking at her with longing and lust, she pulled away from Alexey and looked at him with an unreadable, cold expression.
“What’s wrong, my love? Are you angry at something?” Alexey asked in surprise.
“No. I just don’t like a lot of attention.”
“Since when are you shy to show your feelings?”
“Let’s leave this topic. I’m too tired for serious conversation.”
Alexey said nothing and tried to change his attention to something else, but it did not work, and the light mist of irritation spoilt his romantic mood, confused his thoughts and caused him embarrassment. He was puzzled and could not understand Kate’s mood swings. He was tender with her and had not given her any reason to be offended. Doubts about her love for him stirred in his mind.
“I need to have a serious talk with you,” he said suddenly, with a strained voice.
She looked closely at him, with wide-open eyes.
“It seems to me that this situation could spiral out of control,” he said distinctly. “I’m talking about the revolution and about events planned for the upcoming days. Don’t you think it is reckless to risk our lives for the sake of another shot of adrenaline? It’s better to be in a safe place and remain unharmed.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that we should leave this country, and the sooner we do that, the better. You know that something very serious might begin soon, and nobody knows how it will end.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying, and you’re with me. Don’t pay any attention to my mood swings.”
Robert arrived early in the morning. The departure lounge swarmed with people who were hastily trying to leave the city. Buses and cars had created a traffic jam, which stretched for several kilometres. The crowds were mainly tourists or relatives of embassy and foreign company employees. After sensing the smoke of the revolution and becoming convinced, after the example of Tunisia, that the process could last for a long time, they had decided to protect themselves and not wait until the flames of revolution turned into an inferno.
They lined up at the entrance to the airport, people of different ages and nationalities, but with the same expression on their faces: exhaustion and fear. They had packed their belongings hastily in the night and then had driven to the airport through checkpoints, meeting military vehicles and armoured vehicles on the way. They feared that all flights would be cancelled and that they would have to stay here in the uncertainty. They were nervous but they tried to hide their anxiety.
Wessam met Robert like an old friend. They got into the car, drove towards the city centre, and after crossing the Nile River, drove to Zamalek, where they parked by a nondescript building. A large four-room apartment was located on the ground floor, where English courses took place. This place had become the headquarters of one of the protest movements.
Wessam greeted Ahmed. There were two other men sitting by the large round table, discussing something and paying no attention to the guests.
“We are talking about the prospects of the revolution,” Ahmed said. “Do you want to participate in the discussion? Your opinion would be interesting.”
“With pleasure,” Wessam said.
“Sit down, both of you. These are my friends, Karim and Belal. I’ll bring you some tea.”
“Do you think people are ready for the revolution?” Belal asked doubtfully. “Don’t you think everything will repeat itself all over again, and the old dictator will be replaced with a new one, as happened in the French Revolution, or the Russian one? After all, creation of a democratic society requires laying a foundation that will support an entire structure. This foundation can only be laid with democratic values, enshrined in the constitution. After defeating the regime, in order to avoid plunging the country into anarchy and protect ourselves from a new dictator, we need to adopt a new constitution immediately.”
“Why do you think that we should strive for democracy and for Western values?” Karim interrupted him. “Western values are not for us. We have our own values, based on the Koran, and they are much more advanced than their values.”
“What about Copts?” Wessam interrupted. “They are a minority, but it’s still a huge part of the population and their interests should be also taken into account. I don’t think that Copts would agree to live according to Sharia law. This could lead to a split in our society.”
“Yes, it’s an important point,” Karim said quietly. “But it’s the second goal. The main one is to overthrow the dictator.”
“I believe that we should focus on democratic values from the beginning,” Belal voiced his point of view. “We should call for freedom of speech, for a new constitution and for a parliament elected by people without fraudulence. By all accounts, people are tired of lies; people want the truth.
“Don’t forget that our country has no democratic history,” he continued. “People just don’t know what freedom of choice is; they can only guess. Our opinion has always been imposed on us from the top; rulers have always thought instead of the people and have not allowed them to make their own decisions to control the country that belongs to them. Only democracy can give people an opportunity to own their country fully. After all, what is the country? It is similar to a corporation. Everyone has rights of ownership; its owners are everyone, but only the one who invests more in the shared fund of the country has the right to demand more from it because his contribution is more valuable than the contributions of others. It’s not just material investments, but also intellectual, creative and spiritual potential that each person invests in its development, enriching all citizens and the state as a whole. Each country consists of this because of its financial, military, intellectual and cultural strength, as well as other layers, which have to progress and develop. Therefore, I believe that basic rights should be equal for everyone, but those who invest more should have more rights and a greater impact on the country. Investing, not depriving, as it is happening now, where the ruling elite of the country and the corrupt officials suck the blood of the people, and have all the benefits and receive all the rights, while the common man is like a miserable animal, a donkey, which is beaten and humiliated by an evil owner, keeping him constantly half-starved.”
“You say it quite well,” noted Ahmed, standing at the door with a tray. “What do you think, Robert?”
“I totally agree. The main thing is to adopt a constitution and laws that will allow development of democratic processes in the country, but there is another thing: to establish a democracy of the people, instead of a democracy of capital. You should think how to ensure that power won’t be taken by the military or big businesses, who could manipulate people as they wanted. In order to do this, you need to create a coalition committee, along with other participants of the protest movement, which will bring together leaders, parties and alliances. At this point, the committee would define the strategy of the revolution and unite its participants. Later, when we overthrow the regime, the committee will monitor the adoption of the constitution and the transfer of power.”
“It’s practical advice,” Ahmed remarked.
“I have an issue with the participation of foreigners in the demonstrations on our agenda,” said Karim suddenly. “I believe that, if a foreigner participates in the revolution, people may think that he is an agent from another country that is sponsoring us. A foreigner in the crowd is a trump card in the hands of the regime. There is already propaganda on TV that the turmoil has been organised by Israel, maybe with the help of the United States, and that the organisers are foreign agents who want to undermine stability in the country.
“Think, if we have foreigners in our ranks, they will point fingers at us, saying that the protest movement is financed by foreign organisations and the revolution was ordered by the U.S. That’s why it’s better to avoid having foreigners in our ranks. Only reporters and journalists should participate; the rest will hinder us.”
“No. Robert will be among us. He gives very good advice. He should see everything from the inside,” Ahmed said, firmly.
“He doesn’t look like a foreigner, but if somebody notices that he is an Englishman, we will put a galabiya or burka on him,” Wessam joked.
“Don’t talk with the press, Robert, then everything will be all right. If the press tries to interview you, you should pretend to be deaf and dumb. Make a gesture like this,” Belal said touching his earlobe and then his lower lip with two fingers.
Most of the men were on the side of Robert, signifying that he was a valuable member of the movement and would participate in all protests and rallies. This inspired Robert. He felt grateful; he had respect for these people and, feeling united with them, he wanted to be useful and do something significant and important.
“What do you think, Ahmed? How long do you think it will last? I mean, when will we win?” Karim asked him.
“I don’t know, but we have to be consistent and patient in achieving our goal. The revolution in Tunisia lasted for a month; our revolution will also last for some time.”
“Tomorrow is Khalid Saeed’s birthday. Let’s celebrate it as much as we can and show these rats our strength. I think Saeed is watching us from above and is happy that we finally woke up,” Ahmed said.
“By the way, how many people will know about the protests and the meeting point? After all, the internet is blocked,” Robert asked.
“Don’t worry; people are already aware of the event. Everything is ready, and the whole city knows,” Karim said. “Information is being spread by phone, at work, in mosques, in churches and everywhere else. We started our own internet.”
In fact, the whole city was talking about the planned rallies. People were discussing the upcoming protests on the streets, in mosques, in churches, in the shops and restaurants, at home and at work. People called each other, met, and went to visit each other to call for a demonstration and to convince doubters to come. They were waiting for the beginning of that day, hoping and believing in it and anticipating that a new era, which would bring a different life of freedom and improvement, was about to start.
The new day was no different than any other Thursday: there were the same problems and concerns, the familiar expectation of the working day’s end, and anticipation for the weekend. The traffic jams on the streets started earlier than usual. There were crowds of people in the shopping centres and packed into restaurants and cafés. A bustle was arising before the calm, which would not come this week, because a new battle would be fought the next day. Instead of a day off, people would go to demonstrations and barricades, and some, instead of fighting for customers and profit in the stores, would fight with the military and police, using physical strength and testing their endurance. Most of the people were waiting for this day, thinking that the demonstrations would be peaceful and harmless like street festivals, and they would also go freely to Tahrir as they had done two days before. People were confident in their abilities, and they thought that tomorrow they would succeed.
“How are you? What are your plans for tomorrow?” an old friend, Mina, asked Ashraf, patting him on the shoulder.
“Problems, problems. The flour price has risen, the bakery is closed,” complained Ashraf. “I began to buy bread from the distributors, but the store across the street has lower prices and customers don’t buy my bread so it dries and I have to throw it away. I have losses again. I thought of selling dairy products, but I need a second refrigerator and there is no money for one. I thought I’d borrow the money from my brother-in-law, but his shop burned down a few days ago. Just think – he has lost his entire business and owes money to his suppliers and creditors. Above all, a few days ago my son said that he wanted to marry. This is, of course, good, but where will I get money for the wedding? I want everything to be perfect; I don’t want to look bad in front of the neighbours.”
“Weddings are not cheap,” Mina said.
“Yeah, you don’t need to tell me. You have to invite everybody and offer food, but food is so expensive, and drinks as well. I’ll have to spend about five thousand pounds and it’s only for one evening. Imagine it: you work, save money for several months, and then all the money is eaten in one evening. We had better weddings in our time: the prices were different and everybody helped. Neighbours, relatives and friends carried food to the shared table. Somebody was selfless and helped with the money.”
“Indeed people were kinder before.”
“Yes. That’s for sure. Life was different and people were different: we had greater joy and kindness and we helped each other; but now everybody must survive, and everyone looks out for themselves. Nobody has money, everybody is suffering and prices are rising.”
“Prices are rising and profit is falling.”
“Exactly. We earn less and less.” Ashraf nodded his head.
“Something must be done,” Mina said.
“Yes, something must be done with business. I think I should go to the bank and ask for a loan.”
“It won’t change anything, Ashraf. You will enslave yourself even more; you’ll bury yourself in debt.”
“This is true. There is a catch, everywhere you go,” Ashraf said sadly.
“Won’t you go to the demonstration, buddy? Mina asked, suddenly narrowing his eyes.
“No, I won’t. What demonstration? I need to work. I can’t afford to take a day off. My store has to be open and make money. I need to eat.”
“Come on, don’t talk like that. If everyone talks like this, we will continue living in poverty. We need change. We need new authority. You work from dawn until late at night, saving each pound, while some people do nothing and receive millions, although they do not create anything. They only live on money stolen from us. We pay taxes to them, and they build villas and their children study abroad. We should stop being their slaves and putting up with this injustice.”
“Yes, it’s true, but what can we do? They are strong and rich, but we are poor and weak. This is probably our fate.”
“Don’t say that. We are all free people. God created us free, and we are servants of Him, nobody else.”
“Yes, this is the truth.”
“Have you ever thought about your children? What future awaits them in our country? Talk to them; they know everything better than you do. They know that it’s hard to live here and to find a well-paid job.”
“My younger son is talking all the time about leaving for America, but he is very young; he just turned sixteen.”
“They all want to leave,” said Mina. “So think about tomorrow. Imagine that your participation might decide the fate of the whole country.”
“What are you saying? I’m not a politician, I am a little person!”
“No, you are wrong. We are strong united. Sometimes victory depends on one person, and your appearance could outweigh all forces and decide the outcome.”
“Well, I’ll think about it. Perhaps I will come,” Ashraf smiled.
They hugged each other, kissed each other’s cheeks and said goodbye.
Ashraf went to his shop. He thought about his conversation with Mina for a long time and he could not decide if he should go to the demonstration. On one hand, some part of him called him and dragged him there, telling him that he had to, that he was responsible; it was coaxing him gently, whispering in a quiet tender voice, as if talking to a child. However, the other half was scared somehow and begged him to stay. It held his hand, screaming with outrage as it painted a grey-black picture of pain, imprisonment and death before his eyes. Even lying in bed, he could not figure out what to do. His wife had been snoring for a long time, making a sound like the sea’s surf, but he could not fall asleep and instead stared at the ceiling, listening for a long time, until he realised that his heart was calling him there.
“Robert, wake up.”
Robert did not respond; he just snored slightly and turned over, releasing a short mooing sound.
“Wake up, lazy,” repeated Wessam, pushing his back.
“Have I overslept?” asked Robert, suddenly opening his eyes.
“Not yet, but we must hurry. We need to drive across Cairo.”
They began breakfast: Wessam took a piece of bread and, after adding sausage, cheese, tomatoes and lettuce, made a sandwich and inserted it into the sandwich toaster.
“What’s the news today?” Robert asked him, while sipping his mango juice.
“Internet access is blocked across Egypt. Last night, the mobile operators disabled SMS services. I tried several times to send text messages, but they didn’t go through. Messages were sent, but nobody received them. I decided that it was not too late to call my friends to confirm the time and place of the gathering, and then I called friends who were hesitant about whether to join the protests or not, and I tried to persuade them to take our side. You know, despite the fact that all my friends are wealthy people and should be satisfied with the regime, most of them have accepted my invitation. We agreed to meet without any preliminary call, and it was the right decision. As I expected, the operators completely switched off mobile connections this morning. Calls are being reset constantly. There is a message of “Network error.”
“Where do we meet?”
“In Mohandessin. We’ll start after the noon prayers at the mosque. You don’t have to be present at the prayer. Just wait for me near the mosque,” said Wessam, putting a plate with the hot sandwich in front of Robert.
“Do you think a lot of people will come?”
“I think so. There are several meeting points announced in different areas: in Giza, Shubra, Ramses and other places. They are mainly in poor areas. People there are the most dissatisfied of all with the regime and nothing will stop them from overthrowing it. According to my calculations, hundreds of thousands of people will gather at each meeting point. Our main goal is Tahrir. We must seize it at any price; but that doesn’t mean you have to throw yourself blindly at bullets and tanks.
“I advise you not to forget that you’re a foreigner. You will stand out from the crowd, especially when you start talking, so try to stay near me all the time. Don’t leave me, not even a step away. You are my guest, and I’m responsible for you. Remember, we have to stay together, no matter what.”
They finished their coffee and breakfast, went into the hall and switched on the TV. Wessam began to sort some things stacked in a row on the table.
“I’ve prepared what we might need, which might even save our lives,” he said, looking at Robert seriously. “Firstly, Pepsi. Put three bottles inside your rucksack. No, better make it four. I will get another one for you. I will also take a few.”
“Why so many?” Robert asked, surprised.
“It’s a good remedy for tear gas. It eliminates the gas effect. If tear gas attacks start, wash your face with it and the numbness will disappear.
“Here are masks,” Wessam continued. “They’re gauze bandages. Take them just in case. Here are three sets. If we have too many, we can give them to somebody else. I think some people will come unprepared and they’ll probably need our help.
“Onion can be useful as well. It has the same effect as the soda. Smear a little bit on your face and your eyes will burn from the onion instead of gas. It’s an old folk remedy from Tunisia. I’ll take a few. You take some too. Get them from the fridge,” said Wessam.
Robert brought a handful of yellow onions, which looked like overripe apples, and put them into his rucksack, along with a small kitchen knife.
“We need to take more plastic bags,” Wessam continued, packing vigorously. “Tunisian colleagues advised us to use them to protect against electrocution. You wrap them around your legs and tie them tightly or put an elastic rubber band on top of them; then you won’t be hurt by electric shocks. We won’t do this in advance, or our legs will sweat too much. Take scissors. Put them with the plastic bags at the top of the rucksack, so that they’ll be visible. Each second will be a precious one. Also, take a first aid kit. No, I’ll take that myself, you don’t know our medicine.
“Perhaps that’s all,” he said and, after a long pause, looked at the TV, where there was a chronology of the protests in Egypt. “Have you got your camera? It’s necessary to shoot historical events for future generations.”
“My memory card is full,” said Robert slowly, also watching the report.
“Wipe it clean.”
“I’ll bring placards. I’ve made a few,” Wessam said, and quickly went down the long hallway to the bedroom.
“Look,” he said, bringing small, twisted rolls of placards. “‘Viva Free Egypt!’, ‘No poverty!’ and ‘We are against unemployment!’”
“And where are the posters against the regime?” Robert questioned.
“I don’t want to risk that. It’s still too early.”
“Why is it too early? Why are we organising all this then? It’s not only for the sake of the fight against unemployment and poverty. They’re only consequences.”
“Yes, you’re right, but we need to be careful. The police will watch us. Perhaps the most active, those who call for the overthrow of the government openly, will be detained. We are not yet strong enough to show our face completely. We have to do this gradually.”
“I don’t understand you, Wessam,” Robert said. “Sometimes you call for the overthrow of the president and a change of power, sometimes you ask that we procrastinate. Are you afraid of being caught?”
“No, I’m not afraid of anything,” Wessam answered angrily. “I am just cautious. I am ready to sacrifice myself for the sake of the revolution, to be wounded or killed as a martyr, but to be detained and imprisoned would be a shame for me. No matter the outcome of our protests, I wouldn’t be able to take part in it and would stay behind bars during the most crucial days.”
The city was free from traffic jams and more deserted than usual, so they drove through it easily. The prayer calls echoed with excitement in the heart, as if they were important signals for a call to action, yet shrouded with obscurity, during which the dice of life and death would be thrown, presenting each of them with their fates. Nobody knew the future, no one could foresee his fate or the fate of the country, but each of them held onto their faith. Everyone prayed earnestly and more diligently than ever before. Each of them hoped. Each of them wanted to succeed.
Wessam came out of the mosque and walked over to Robert confidently. It was clear that the prayer had inspired him.
“How was your prayer? “ Robert asked.
“It was OK, but no one listened to the Imam. He called for calm and for the peaceful resolution of the conflict, saying that the authorities were given to us by a high power and we have to accept that, but it was clear from people’s faces that they didn’t agree.
“People don’t believe promises anymore. The authorities have discredited themselves completely. People understand this and they want to win, not compromise. Nobody believes in dialogue with the authorities anymore.”
“And what happened after the prayer?”
“There was a lot of emotion. There were calls for the overthrow of the regime,” Wessam said.
“I heard. I thought that it had already begun, and I was ready to join you,” Robert said.
“Besides that, we discussed a plan of action. Somebody suggested going to the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis, but I think that would be folly. We would only expose ourselves to bullets there. It would be more rational to begin with Tahrir and state our demands there. We must take the square and be there until the end. It’s the most peaceful and bloodless way.”
The first line of police was a surprise. The wall of uniformed officers confused them. What were they supposed to do? Should they go ahead, face the obstacle and fight, or retreat, submitting to circumstances, or call on the police for a reconciliation?
“Selmiya^^22^^, Selmiya,” the crowd cried out, as if on command.
The people did not want violence and still hoped that the police would take their side, but their hopes were not realised. The police began to throw tear gas bombs at the protesters and fire rubber bullets. A few protestors succumbed to fear, cowering away from the crowd, and fled in the opposite direction, but most did not give up; they continued fighting, led by brave souls who threw stones at the police.
“We’ll definitely break through, we’ll crush them. We are an overwhelming majority. Look! Even the wind is on our side; it drives the tear gas in their direction,” Wessam said to Robert, pointing to the smoke coming from a canister which had fallen nearby.
In fact, the smoke from the tear gas bombs moved in the wrong direction for some time, influenced by the wind, and swirled towards the police, who had to retreat a few metres. The protesters threw cobblestones at the enemies with greater zeal.
The tear gas bombs were everywhere, their shells flying continuously, and even the blowing wind could not eliminate their suffocating effect. They were the main threat, making the head dizzy, the heart pound and the eyes sting with tears.
“Bring buckets here! Buckets!” someone shouted.
Several buckets of water were brought immediately and passed from one person to the next. If a tear gas bomb landed nearby, it was picked up abruptly and extinguished in the bucket, uttering a sharp hissing sound and spewing steam from the water.
Robert handed another bucket over and, after taking several bottles of soda from his rucksack, offered them to the people standing nearby, leaving only one for himself. Breathing became unbearable; his face was numb and it seemed to have become unfamiliar and senseless to him. He felt dizzy, and then the dynamic performance floating before his eyes began to move away gradually, as he began to slip into unconsciousness. Seconds seemed to last for hours. He fell to his knees and an intense fear overwhelmed him. After surrendering himself to it, he forced his brain and his heart to wake up, with a sudden release of adrenaline, changing it to a different rhythm. Panting, he abruptly opened a soda can and washed his face with the liquid. Instantly it allowed him to feel his face and to move his lips again. Someone handed him a wet bandage and, after grabbing it hastily with both hands, he started breathing deeply. The sharp smell of vinegar burned his nose and throat but, along with this poison, he received oxygen, which relieved his brain even more and gave him strength. He breathed continuously with one thought spinning round his head: survival.
Robert looked around and saw indistinguishable figures through thick, engulfing smoke, which was erupting all around. It seemed that they were possessed. Any ordinary person who faced similar obstacles would rush away, but these people were influenced by a common unspoken call and were prepared to sacrifice their lives as they fought desperately for the right to reach their goal: Tahrir.
He suddenly remembered Wessam and began to look for him, but he seemed to have evaporated in the mist of gas. At first, Robert thought that the man desperately throwing stones a few metres away from him was Wessam, but after getting closer, he realised that he was wrong: they had lost each other.
Soon, the police stopped firing rubber bullets and the explosions of tear gas gradually subsided; the smoke began to dissipate, but the smell was still strong.
“We’ve won,” Robert said emotionally.
“No, we haven’t won, they just ran out of bullets and tear gas,” said a man who was standing nearby.
An obstacle was broken, a passage was open; some policemen ran away while others stayed inside their cars. The people were furious. They did not understand why their peaceful demonstration had been answered with aggression. Some protestors were so angry with the police that they broke car windshields and slashed tyres. Before these acts, they stretched dark clothes over the windshields, hampering the visibility of those sitting inside. The police abandoned their cars and rushed away, towards their fellow officers.
The protestors crossed a bridge over the river, came to an island, reached the grounds of the Opera house and saw several rows of police, standing assertively before them. The reinforcements had arrived, with fresh supplies of weapons and armoured vehicles. The police felt superior and looked arrogantly at the angry crowd of people, who were tired but still enthusiastic.
So it began again: the shelling, the smoke, the screams, and the explosions. They advanced and then retreated. Some fell, while others were dragged to the sidewalk; it was unclear if these people were alive or dead. Everybody was mixed up in the chaos of bodies and movement, and it was very hard to discern what was really going on.
Robert saw that some well-dressed young men had retreated and were walking down to the nearby metro station. Soon, he realised that he was constantly looking back, watching the people walking down to the metro station. Although he was not at the forefront, had not thrown rocks or Molotov cocktails, or clashed with the police, he felt that he was no longer able to be in this place, where the magnitude of danger was off the scale. The stress of the situation overwhelmed him so much that at one point he stopped and asked himself what he was doing in this foreign country full of strangers.
“Why do I need all this? Why should I risk my life? For the sake of what? I’m a stranger here, and it shouldn’t touch me. This is not my country.” The line of thoughts rushed through his head. He looked around and after delving into his thoughts, looked in the direction of the metro again and tried to ask his heart. It did not answer. It just drummed away in feverish beats and screamed at him to follow it. Therefore, he walked slowly, making his way through the people, and noticed that their ranks had thinned significantly.
Robert got on a train, not knowing where he was going. Stops flashed before his eyes, and it was only after passing Attaba that he realised he was going in the direction of Shubra. His brain was inflamed and it could not calm down, hindering him from having an objective perception of reality.
“What am I doing?” he asked himself suddenly. “Where am I going? I’m running like a coward. I’m running out of fear, not knowing where I’m going as long as it’s far away. Just a few hours ago, I said that we had to sacrifice ourselves for the common goal and that we were stronger than any enemy through our courage and determination, and now I have betrayed them and myself, and I am ready to sacrifice an idea because of the puny fear that leads me away. No, I’m going back, no matter what; I’m riding back. Let my conscience be clear.”
He got off and changed trains, now going in the opposite direction; and by changing direction, he changed his thoughts and feelings. Now he felt confident and, to some extent, proud that he had defeated the main enemy – fear – by subduing it and locking it away inside the dark room of his subconscious.
Robert got off the train at the Opera station and immediately sensed a sharp smell of gas. Breathing became difficult, and he took a gauze bandage from his rucksack. After sipping from the bottle of Pepsi, he washed his face with it and put the bottle inside the pocket of his jacket.
“Don’t go there. Gas,” an elderly woman, a metro worker, shouted to him. “Try another exit. The smell is less there.”
Robert followed her advice and, after walking through a long passage, he emerged next to the fence of the Opera House complex. A wall of police were lined up near the gates to the complex and they were protecting themselves with bulletproof shields.
At first, Robert thought that they saw him as a lone enemy, and were waiting for the order to rush in and advance to surround him and attack him with clubs, beating him to a pulp. He thought that the protesters had been dispersed and the police were finishing off all who remained. He was scared. He felt his knees shaking, and the thought that he had to run away flashed through his mind like lightning. He looked around frantically and realised that salvation was only possible on the other side of the high fence, so he began to run towards it. Then suddenly, after hearing an oncoming noise like the buzz of a swarm of bees, he turned around and saw a crowd of people a hundred metres away, confidently marching towards the wall of police. This was a huge mob, spreading loudly and dynamically along the street leading to the bridge, like a deluge, flooding and sweeping everything away. It was a march of the people, coming from the direction of Giza.
He looked at them and his confidence returned. Giza residents had always been famous for their courage in fighting with the police; the poorer the region was, the more courage its residents had.
“I have nothing to fear with them here,” Robert thought, as he cheered up and waved at them. They waved a greeting in return. He ran to them in delight, reached their ranks and found outstretched arms patting him on the shoulders and people shaking his hands. They had accepted him into their ranks.
They swept away the obstacle within ten minutes. Clubs and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the policemen and those who lingered were met with fists. The police fought back with clubs, beating their attackers, but soon afterwards they retreated a few hundred metres and, after regrouping, built a new wall.
Suddenly, tear gas bombs were thrown and exploded dramatically in front of the running protesters, creating poisonous clouds of smoke and making it difficult to breathe. Some of the police had hidden in the bushes behind a garden fence of the Opera House complex, and threw tear gas at them continuously. At first, people panicked and began to rush from one side to another in confusion, but soon a few brave men charged at the fence and, after loosening it, they broke it and rushed towards the police.
Robert followed them. One of the policemen was caught immediately. He was dragged to the ground and they began kicking him. He was young and fragile, and he ended up doubled over, whimpering. He looked like a guilty schoolboy, helpless and miserable, who had been bullying other boys from the junior class, and who now, when seniors stood up for them, fearfully apologised and promised to change for the better.
“Leave him be!” a tall guy in glasses shouted; he was respected among the protestors. “Let him go his way, and let them know that we do not beat those lying on the ground.”
“You’re right, Hassan. Let him go in peace,” said somebody.
The crowd of protesters divided. One part continued their way along the street, approaching a new wall of police. Inspired by their advance thus far, the people walked fast; some even ran. They wanted to overcome another obstacle and move further to their main goal of Tahrir. Several people with metal sticks stopped in order to gather stones from the asphalt, which were their main weapons. The mined stones were distributed quickly among the people lined up in the small group. The one who had picked at the rubble ran towards his target. After using up his feelings of accumulated rage and fear, he retreated a few steps and waited for the other people running to help him, rushing forward again to face the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. A hail of blows from rubber clubs and exploding tear gas were not enough to stop their energy.
At first, the sounds of weapons followed by rubber bullets caused confusion, but after seeing that the resulting wounds were more like giant insect bites than the serious damage of lead bullets, the people calmed down. Some pulled bullets out of their bodies, like splinters, and put them in their hands, boasting in front of others.
“Look at me. I’m a terminator. Bullets can’t penetrate my skin,” a youngster shouted enthusiastically to his friend.
His friend laughed. They both looked like university freshmen; naïve and fragile, they were experiencing life like it was a computer game, through a screen where reality mixed with fantasy. They did not realise the danger, since hazard for them was related to a virtual concept – desirable and enjoyable, accompanied by the short-term release of adrenaline.
Another group of demonstrators rushed into the territory of the Opera. They wanted to approach the police from the other side, and, after forming a semi-circle, to assault them.
“People should drag several containers with them,” Robert said to Hassan. “The garbage container can be used as a shield; we can hide from the bullets and bombs behind it.”
“That’s a great idea: rubbish containers are the solution. Guys, let’s split into groups and each group will take a container,” Hassan said in support of Robert’s suggestion.
Several people immediately ran towards some containers, which were lined up nearby, and after taking their handles, started to push them. They hid behind them in half-bent positions and walked forward to a distance from which it was possible to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police. Stones were flying in a continuous hail, accompanied by the flying flames of Molotov cocktails.
In response, a torrential rain of rubber bullets poured down, bouncing off the containers and producing a whistling, snapping melody. Music played by the Opera House complex; it was the music of time and ongoing events, of aggression and clashes. The howls, thunder, beats, hissing, knocking, explosions, and the cries and moans of people created a symphony of the confrontation between the two sides.
Soon the police ran out of ammunition again and, retreating, ran across the bridge and opened a way for the protesters. It seemed all that remained was just a short distance; they only had to cross the bridge and walk less than a kilometre along the street leading to Tahrir. The goal was so close and so desirable; but the police stopped abruptly in the middle of the bridge. Reinforcements were coming; new units of police and buzzing APC vehicles were rushing forward.
Robert didn’t really understand what was going on. He was exhausted and just following the impulses of the crowd, completely submitting himself to it, but there were moments that flashed sharply in front of him – immobilising and sobering – that awakened fear and an instinct of self-preservation. He completely surrendered to this instinct when a few people fell down either from tear gas or from bullets, and a man ahead of him screamed through the tears:
“Brother, my brother. You killed him. You killed my brother.”
Through the thick smoke, he saw a weeping man, leaning over a blood covered body, his voice muted by a barrage of falling tear gas bombs and the screams of people.
It had never happened before. It was a rain of tear gas bombs. Coughing people were trying to get away from the dense smoke, which shrouded the entire bridge. Some ran from side to side, some fell, while others rushed straight ahead in the direction of the police. Robert was panting and firmly grabbed the arm of a young man running past; he understood nothing and only started following him. They ran forward through the smoke and the crowd until they had crossed the bridge and left the rapidly spreading fog behind.
Alexey saw no point in participating in the protests and did not understand why foreign tourists should interfere in the political life of another country. He spoke with Kate several times, trying to convince her not to go to the demonstrations, but her resolve was unshakable.
“Yes, it’s interesting,” he said. “I understand you; but how can you fight for the rights of foreign people? You’ve only stayed here for about a month. You’ll fly back to England after a week or two, to your relatives and friends. It’s only an adventure for you.”
“No, you’re wrong! I want to help this country, I want to help the people; I know what they want.”
“How do you know? Do you know what poverty is? Have you been persecuted by the authorities? How could you understand these people, their sufferings and misery? Maybe you want to help these people and think you’re a missionary, but that’s not the main thing that motivates you. I know why you need all this: you’re looking for new emotions. You need a shot of adrenaline, strong as a drug that will save you from depression; and you’re bored with me, aren’t you? I’m not an anti-globalist, like your ex. I don’t smoke drugs continuously and I don’t talk about philosophy.”
“You’re unbearable. Sometimes I hate you; you can be so petty and stupid. Yes, you’re superficial. You don’t have the intelligence Robbie had; but there are other things that outweigh that, like your kindness and sense of romance.”
After her words of love, Alexey thought that maybe he had been too harsh with her, so he changed his tone as they continued their conversation.
“Listen to me. I’m not against your beliefs and your political romance; I’m romantic too, like you said. However, I’m more inspired by nature and relationships,” he said, smiling. “But it’s not about that. I worry about you. I worry about us. We’re in a foreign country and it’s a difficult moment for this country. Anything could happen. Do you realise that people have been wounded or killed? What if you or I were to get hurt? Personally I want to live.”
“I’ll tell you why it’s really important to me. These events rarely happen, perhaps once in a hundred years. As a researcher who’s here at the right place and time, I want to participate and witness these events; I want to be part of history. I want to understand the mechanisms of revolution. I want to improve my professional level, to see the processes from the inside. Besides, there is some adventurism in me, you’re right; I get tremendous enjoyment from the danger and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Some ride a bike in the mountains, some jump with a parachute, some go rafting or diving. Everyone makes their own decisions, we’re all adults. I think you have the wrong idea about relationships. If you start to restrict the freedom of your loved one, you treat them as property, not as a lover.”
“What if you worry about that person and know that without restrictions your loved one will deteriorate or die? What would you do, for example, if your husband or your loved one were an alcoholic and gradually heading towards hitting rock bottom? Would you leave him or limit his alcohol intake?”
“Firstly, I would try to cure him and I would give him a choice: me or drinking. If that didn’t work, I would leave him. Why should I suffer because of someone who doesn’t love me?”
“What if he does love you but can’t give up his addiction? He’s so addicted to alcohol that he is unable to live without it because he’ll get a hangover and serious conditions all the time.”
“Do you think I should suffer with him over his foolish choices? We are all free people, and everyone chooses their own life. No one chooses our way for us, we aren’t children. Of course I would leave such a person.”
“Here we are different. If my loved one were an alcoholic or a drug addict, I would never leave her and I would stay with her until the end. I would love her until the end, because love for me means taking care of that person. If you love someone, you try to protect them from harm.”
Alexey paused. Kate was silent too. Some kind of detachment was occurring between them, which was barely noticeable, but growing at a great speed, like an avalanche. Suddenly they both felt alienated from each other, as if a wall had just sprung up between them.
Alexey felt awkward. He wanted to be alone. Kate, on the other hand, wanted to go out onto the street. She could hear people’s screams growing outside, as if in unison with her thoughts.
“Has it started?” he asked her irritably, shattering the silence between them and watching as she walked towards an open window.
She turned back and glanced at him disdainfully. There was something irritating about his tone. It seemed to her that he would try again to dissuade her from participating in the protests, and a tedious argument would spoil her mood once more.
A small stream of people flowed by outside periodically, chanting slogans. Noise was also coming from the nearby mosque, where people had formed a group after prayers and were now shouting something that sounded like a battle call. Groups of demonstrators, like streams, walked towards each other to merge and form a river that would flow into the city centre.
Alexey sneaked up to her, gently put his arm around her shoulder and kissed her cheek. He tried to break down the wall that had been created with his tenderness, but it did not work. She put her hand out slowly and stepped back from the window, letting him know that there could be no reconciliation, and that the wall of alienation was already cemented in place. A chill ran through the room and they once again felt the burden of staying together.
“Tell me, when are we going?” he said, changing tactics.
“After breakfast,” she answered, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “If you don’t change your mind, of course.”
Breakfast was more like lunch – hearty and plentiful. There were a lot of snacks and a variety of salads and fruits. Alexey decided to refuse the spicy aubergines – they might upset his stomach. Kate, on the other hand, loved spicy food and ate her meal accompanied by a small chilli pepper, spicy pickled carrots cut into patterned strips and spicy aubergines.
After the meal, they decided to drink something strong instead of tea, and opened a bottle of the local vermouth, whose shape and label resembled an Italian Cesare Rosso. The vermouth was disgusting and tasted like flavoured spirit mixed with water. They fused it with cherry juice, and barely drank two glasses before deciding to try to eliminate the strange aftertaste by drinking tea.
The shrill sound of the doorbell interrupted their tea ceremony and broke their well-fed lazy mood.
“Who is it?” Alexey asked.
Kate walked slowly to the front door, opened it and shrieked with delight. It was Sherif. He was in a buoyant mood and, after entering the living room, immediately asked them to offer him the vermouth standing on the table.
“There are some very interesting things happening on the streets; the fate of the country is being decided now and you are sitting at home,” he said, drinking a glass of the pink liquid in one gulp. “Get dressed. We’re leaving.”
“We’ve just been thinking about going,” Kate mumbled, as if she was apologising.
“Where exactly are we going? What’s our ultimate goal?” Alexey asked.
“Where? Tahrir is our goal, where else? We’re all going there; Tahrir means liberation, don’t you know that? It’s Liberation Square. We walk towards freedom; we walk there, where we will gain it.”
They joined the flowing crowd on the street and walked forward, charged with its energy. They were mesmerized and immersed in the mystical trance of noise, screams, whistling and clapping, as if they were part of some secret ritual. They did not understand what was happening, but realised that each of them had an important mission. There were people crowding balconies and rooftops, like stowaways during a rock concert, watching ongoing events and their participants.
“It’s so stuffy here; let’s walk along the river bank,” Kate exclaimed loudly, talking to Sherif, who had to stoop a little to hear her voice.
The river bank was empty, except for a small area where people were lined up, shouting slogans and methodically beating on empty plastic bottles, some with sticks and some drumming them with their hands, in an expression of solidarity with the protesters. All the river restaurants located on the Nile Corniche were closed, except for one – a small restaurant next to the marina, where several felucca boats were docked and a few visitors were coming out.
“Shall we sail by felucca? It will be faster than walking and we’ll arrive right in the centre of events,” offered Sherif.
“It’s not a bad idea,” supported Kate.
“How romantic it is to sail on the River Nile and look at the revolution from the outside,” Alexey said.
They walked down to the dock and along winding wooden stairs, and Sherif immediately approached an elderly man who turned out to be the owner of a felucca. For a long time, the man refused to let them go, arguing that sailing was not safe on this day, but after Sherif offered him a hundred pounds, he abruptly changed his mind and smiled, pointing out his boat, and then slowly followed them to it.
The felucca was old and thoroughly battered. It seemed to furrow the river in different directions, crossing the country on its main artery. Its wooden floorboards were faded with age and some of them wobbled from side to side; a canvas was sloppily stitched in places; slats of the awning were roughly tied by a blackened rope with marine knots; and a dirty lifesaver with paint peeling off it was attached to another piece of old rope.
Alexey did not notice all this – water was his element, calming and purifying his heart and consciousness. The light wind caressed his face and he felt a surge of strength and freshness. He looked at the felucca and saw the canvas fluttering smoothly and gracefully in the wind, like the wings of a butterfly.
When they came closer to the city centre, thick smoke appeared in front of them, giving a sinister look to the city and enshrouding Kasr El Nile Bridge, as well as neighbouring streets. On the other hand, the embankment was clearly visible, exposing crowds of people marching in the direction of the smoke.
As they arrived in Mar Girgis, the owner of the felucca refused to sail any further. After landing, they walked through the narrow streets and alleys in the direction of El Kasr El Ein Street, which led to Tahrir.
At first, the streets appeared ominously empty, with shuttered shops and cafés and the absence of any traffic. An invisible danger, hiding in the suspicious silence, could suddenly strike at any moment. They became tense, looking around, and then quickly walked ahead, but soon they realised that their fear was unfounded. At that time, it seemed everything was over, and that they were latecomers, the last to know of the change of authorities in the country. They joked and laughed about this for some time, but when they heard a sound of the distant rumbling, they all froze at the same time and looked around, wondering where to go next. The popping sound grew louder and the shouts of the crowd reminded them of fans cheering during a football match. Something dragged them towards it. Alexey hesitated. At first, he stopped but then, after realising that it was senseless to retreat, rushed to catch up with Sherif and Kate who were walking ahead of him.
Soon people showed up and became a stream carrying powerful energy, pulsing and eliminating any fears and doubts. The energy of the crowd was intense, astonishing with its frequency and purposefulness. They poured into this stream and moved with others, like a flowing mountain river that knew its way.
“Al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam^^23^^,” people repeatedly called.
These calls reminded Alexey of meditation, when a mantra was repeated countless times. After saying a mantra, he always felt renewal of his consciousness and his mind’s concentration. He started to pronounce words with meanings he did not understand, carefully and loudly.
Screams deafened them. People appeared before his eyes. They were approaching the border marked by the police line; uncertainty was waiting for them after it. They wanted to cross this border as quickly as possible by moving obstacles and continuing towards their target, but it was not so simple: a hail of rubber bullets and tear gas bombs restrained them.
Soon they stopped, the police preventing further advancement. They were confused, but kept the fighting spirit by shouting slogans. Someone quietly began to sing the Egyptian National Anthem, “Beladi, Beladi”; this was immediately taken up by the crowd and soon the faint chants of one person grew into a loud peal of voices as it was sung by hundreds of people.
The police looked at the people indifferently and wearily, shifting from one foot to the other; but after a while they grouped together quickly and, uttering a battle cry, rushed to attack the protesters.
A slight tremor swept through Alexey’s body as he felt fear growing inside him. He stiffened and heard his heart beating fast, feeling his pulsating arteries echoing with hollow beats in his neck and head. His ankles trembled frantically, begging him to run as fast as he could. He grabbed Kate’s hand tightly, preparing to run.
“We’re leaving; are you coming with us?” he asked Sherif, standing behind him.
Sherif did not respond. He stared at the approaching armada and, as if hypnotised, contemplated the unfolding action.
Alexey thought that his silence meant reluctance to leave this place and that he would wait for the oncoming clashes. He looked at Sherif again and, after seeing angry obsession in his face, he understood that it was senseless to reiterate the question.
He walked forward quickly and prepared to run, but immediately felt Kate unclench her hand and, after pulling it away, she stopped.
“What’s the matter? Let’s run,” Alexey said aggressively.
“No, it’s not right. I cannot leave them,” she answered.
“They’ll sort it out themselves. Let’s run.”
“No, I won’t. It’s better if you run, but I’m staying here with everyone else.”
“The carnage will start now. Do you want to taste the blood and smell the gas?” Alexey grumpily tried to persuade her.
“You’re a coward.”
Blood rushed to his face; he flushed and was about to respond sharply to her statement, but suddenly clenched his fists and restrained himself.
“Yes, I’m a coward!” he shouted through the rising noise of people chanting slogans and the emotions shouting inside his head. “Please tell me – aren’t you scared too?”
“Yes, I am. I’m scared, like you, but something keeps me here. I don’t know what it is: curiosity or the sense of solidarity.”
“Probably it’s one and the other. Look, let’s not go to extremes; let’s try to follow the middle path,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked, surprised.
“Let’s not go to extremes means let’s not go into the fight or run quickly. Let’s hide out in that lane and we will watch events from the side.”
“Is it a safe place? We’ll be as visible there as we are here. If they start attacking, they’ll destroy all those who are in their way.”
“Then let’s go inside one of those houses and go up to the roof. We can watch events from the top, just as we did a few days ago. We’ll see everything at a glance and understand what’s really happening,” he suggested to her.
They arrived in the first lane and passed an abandoned booth full of oranges. After that, he saw an open door, leading to the entrance of a multi-storey building. A gloomy atmosphere reigned on the ground floor, and through the dim light of the almost burned out lamp, they noticed a large puddle blocking their way. The water was flowing from one of the coloured pumps allocated separately for each apartment and reinforcing water supply. They bypassed the puddle and tried to go into the elevator, but the door was locked and they had to walk up to the sixth floor, making their way through scattered trash on the stairs.
The roof was covered with bird droppings and yellow spots of unknown origin. Pigeons peacefully grazed in a corner, cooing and jumping through multiple wires stretching from the satellite dishes of different sizes, fastened at different angles to the concrete floor. White-yellow-grey geese, occupying an opposite corner, did not hurry to chase away the pigeons, but after seeing strangers, they honked all together and ran off.
“Someone lives here,” Kate exclaimed, looking around.
In fact, there was plenty of evidence that somebody lived on the roof: an old shabby sofa with torn skin and foam rubber sticking out; linen hanging behind a low wall; packages scattered and filled with something indistinguishable; empty baskets and buckets, as well as a cardboard box filled with grass; and food for birds. A small auxiliary building with patterned bars on the window and a solid black veneer door created a complete view of the family idyll in this place, and a pot with young palms standing beside it highlighted that, even in the heart of the urban jungle, owners tried to be in accord with nature. All this fit well into the urban landscape, and despite the obvious signs of poverty, it gave a feeling of some form of elitism to this place. People, forced to take to the roof and thrown away by society, covered poverty with the lustre of bohemian life, and they looked down at the well-off and secure inhabitants.
There was another life on the roofs of the city, which was parallel and did not intersect with the life of the residents living in houses. Roof inhabitants could be heard, their shadows and silhouettes could be seen from the top floor of the house, and from the street you could see their clothes hanging in a row on the lines, but it was almost impossible to come across them in the way that neighbours from the different apartments sometimes came across each other. The roof dwellers, like ghosts, walked mysteriously upstairs, and lived in their small area.
This discovery astonished Kate. She had never imagined that another life, hidden and invisible, full of difficulties and struggle for survival, existed nearby. She would never walk up to a roof without good reason, but once she was there, she was surprised, and for some time, this feeling blocked the state of euphoria from the actions unfolding on the streets below.
They looked down: a thick fog of tear gas rose up, and it was possible to discern the silhouettes of the police mercilessly beating people with clubs.
“We have made the right choice,” Kate said. “They can’t reach us here.”
“We will stay here as long as we can. Maybe we will spend the night here. There’s a good sleeping place,” Alexey said sarcastically, pointing to the sofa.
They continued to watch the performance, like an audience in the gallery. Chaos filled the streets randomly, and people were slipping in and out of the tear gas smoke like shadows. People moved constantly, like figures on a chessboard, retreating then moving forward, led by a few brave men, throwing Molotov cocktails and boulders at the police. After the first blood appeared, seeping out of randomly scattered bodies, a fear began to rise in the crowd and it swept them like a wave, causing people to flee in different directions. Some rushed into the streets in an effort to reach safety, some rushed to the neighbouring streets, and others ran to the entrances of nearby houses. Only a small handful of the most determined protestors continued fearlessly and selflessly on their way, in spite of the whistling bullets and persistently distributed tear gas.
“It’s impossible to breathe here,” said Alexey, coughing. “Let’s wait it out somewhere inside the building.”
“Hold on. Look – isn’t that Sherif?” Kate said, pointing to a lone, barely visible figure, running in the dense smoke.
“It looks like him.”
A man like Sherif held a sparking smoke bomb high above his head, as if it was a torch. After taking a run, he threw the bomb at the police, like a javelin thrower in a competition. They watched him running for some time, but then he suddenly disappeared in the dense haze of smoke.
“Where is he?” Alexey asked.
“Look, he fell,” Kate said, pointing to a body lying in the dispersed gas cloud. Sherif lay motionless at the roadside. He did not move, and it was unclear whether he was alive or dead. Kate stood on tiptoe and peered over the fence, trying to look more closely at Sherif, but he was too far away for her to determine what had happened to him.
Kate became scared and dizzy; she swayed. She thought that she was having a panic attack. Two types of fear – the fear of heights, and the fear of death –- triggered an explosion deep inside the labyrinth of her brain. It seemed to her that she was losing control, would fall from the roof and be crushed to death. She imagined she was flying down, and freezing cold fear swept over her even more. Kate gripped the edge of the fence tightly, and after standing in a stupor for a while, she abruptly pulled herself away from the fence.
“Let’s go down. We need to help him,” Kate said panting.
“Maybe we shouldn’t risk our lives – what if we get wounded? Let’s wait it out.” Fear was also visible in Alexey’s eyes.
“Later will be too late. He is our friend. We must hurry.”
She ran towards the stairs and Alexey had no choice but to follow her.
Six people carried him, holding his arms and legs. Alexey put his hands under Sherif’s knees, and helped the others carry him towards the hospital. Kate constantly dabbed paper tissues on Sherif’s head, where blood trickled down continuously onto the asphalt. Blood also stained his t-shirt and stood out in brown-grey spots where it had dried.
“What happened to you? Have they hurt you?” Kate asked, seeing him opening his eyes.
“It was gas. Gas bomb,” Sherif said slowly, as he was half-delirious.
“A tear gas bomb hurt him,” said a man who was holding Sherif under his shoulders.
“Is it painful? Be patient for a while. We’ll be at the hospital soon,” Kate tried to support him.
“Thank you. Thank you,” he said quietly, as if squeezing out his words.
They had walked another fifty metres, when Sherif abruptly shook his head.
“Release me. I can manage myself. Myself. I am telling you, myself,” he begged.
He pulled his leg from someone’s hands and stood firmly on the ground. Sherif walked a few steps, but then, staggering, he waved his arms as if searching for balance in the air, and fell to his knees. Several people immediately ran to him and grabbed him under his arms; at first they dragged him, but then they carried him in a horizontal position again.
At the entrance to the hospital, just the three of them were left. Kate and Alexey held on to Sherif, who was walking slowly, his head wrapped up with a torn shirt. He felt a bit better: clarity appeared in his eyes, and his movements became more confident.
“How are you feeling now?” Kate asked him.
“I feel pressure, strong pressure in my head.”
“We were very much afraid for you. We didn’t know what to do.”
“I was frightened myself. It seemed to me that it was the end. Something cracked in my head.”
Two men in civilian clothes asked them to show documents at the entrance to the hospital. Sherif handed over his identification card and they wrote his data in a thick notebook.
“Why are they doing that?” Kate asked Sherif.
“They are security agents. Probably they record wounded people so later they can arrest them.”
“And who are you?” the agent asked, looking at the passports of the foreigners.
“We are journalists,” Kate answered with confidence. She realised that if she admitted to participation in the protests, she risked being expelled from the country, or maybe even something worse could happen – she might be arrested.
“Journalists shouldn’t be here. Journalists talk too much,” the agent said, pointing them to an exit.
“We brought a wounded person and we have to make sure that he will be OK. In addition, we would like to examine the conditions where the wounded are treated. A refusal will lead to negative comments. I don’t think your government would like it.”
Sharif translated Kate’s words and the agent twisted his face and thought for a moment. The other man’s face changed abruptly and smiling strangely, he whispered something into the ear of his colleague. The unhappy grimace melted on the agent’s face, to be replaced by the same strange smile.
“OK. Come in,” the agent said respectfully.
They entered and, after looking around, saw that the hospital lobby was full. People were everywhere: on sheets, on the floor, on trolleys, and on leather sofas. It was not clear if they were alive or already dead; only the occasional groans and faint cries for help indicated that they were wounded. Anyone who was still capable stood up, supported by friends, or leaned on a wall, hoping that he would be able to await his turn. Nurses hurriedly ran back and forth, spotting people who were in a critical condition and leading them away down a corridor. Others had to line up in a separate queue. People with minor injuries and wounds were initially ignored, but soon they lined up in another queue, leading to the opposite corridor.
The hospital had changed significantly on this day. One day it was an exemplary hospital, where wealthy people and foreigners were treated; but on this day, it had been transformed into a shabby one. Even the clean walls, painted a soft peach colour, had become grey with brown spots and stains in places. The shiny tiled floor also lost its lustre as it became stained with blood mixed with mud.
They went to the front reception, and a young Egyptian woman with dyed blonde hair spoke to them in perfect English, with an American accent. She filled Sherif’s data into a computer, and after seeing that his wounds were still bleeding and he was suffering from a headache, she called a nurse on the phone, who soon appeared and led them through a maze of corridors.
“It’s Mansour, my old friend from the university,” said Sherif quietly with a surprised expression on his face, passing a trolley with a man lying on it with a big red-blue hematoma on his forehead. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t help him,” a nurse murmured sadly. “He has died.”
Sherif was carefully examined in the doctor’s office. The doctor examined his head and asked him a few questions and then, after putting on rubber gloves, treated his wound with a solution and wrapped his head with a bandage.
“We need to do a CT scan of his brain,” the doctor said, talking to Kate. “It’s not possible to discover internal injuries without it. Only a CT scan can show trauma injuries of the brain and identify head injury. Don’t worry about it; we will not inject any additional medicine, but in case of a tumour or internal bleeding, urgent surgical intervention will be required.”
“How long does the CT scan take?” Kate asked the doctor.
“Around forty minutes. If we don’t find anything serious, you can safely take him home, unless you want to leave him in the hospital?”
“I will go home,” Sherif said briskly.
They left the office together with a nurse, taking Sherif along more corridors, while Alexey and Kate headed for the waiting room.
Several people with white bandages over their eyes stood by the registration window under a big flat-screen TV, which was showing bloodthirsty sharks on the National Geographic channel.
“Are you foreigners? Where are you from?” one of them asked Kate.
“He’s from Russia, I’m from England. We came here to see Cairo, witnessed the protests and have now joined Egyptian people in their struggle,” she said proudly.
“Well done. Aren’t you scared? I mean, people are being killed here.”
“It’s a bit scary. What about you, what has happened to you?”
“Yes, we all have eye injuries. We are waiting for the conclusion of the doctor: either we have a surgery now or later on, in a few days,” he said, adjusting his bandage. “We were unlucky. Eye injuries are serious things, but what could we have done? They shot at us randomly. They shot their own people like dogs. Then thugs showed up. One of them shot at me, and a pellet hit me right in my eye. I’ve been told that it can’t be removed from my eye at the moment. It went too deeply and penetrated into my brain. I need a separate surgery.”
“We came out to the streets to express dissatisfaction,” interrupted a man wearing sunglasses over his bandage. “We didn’t want any carnage, but they started firing at us without any reason. What type of president is it who gives orders to shoot his own people?”
“Here’s Sherif,” Kate exclaimed. “He made it out quickly.”
“It’s OK, guys. There are no internal injuries and my skull is not damaged. Everything is clear; there is just a minor injury and concussion. After a few days of resting in bed, I’ll be on my feet again,” Sherif said delightedly.
They came out of the hospital. At first they tried to find a taxi for Sherif, but then they realised that it was impossible to drive in the chaos.
“I don’t know what to do, Sherif. On the one hand, we want to continue on our way towards Tahrir; on the other hand, it’s dangerous to leave you in such a condition,” Kate said.
“Don’t worry; drop me here. I will somehow get myself back. Zamalek is not far from here.”
“But it’s not close. We won’t allow you to go alone. Let’s go to Zamalek, and then we can return to this bank of the river, won’t we, Alexey?”
“You know better than me. I don’t know the city as well as you do. We definitely shouldn’t leave Sherif alone though.”
“I don’t want you to ruin your plans because of me, especially on such a day. You have to be there; you should protest with everybody. Listen, my relatives live here nearby, in the Mohamed Naguib area. Please see me off there by making a small detour. Tahrir is very close from there; it’s on the way via Al Bostan.
They walked further. When they were passing the place where Sherif had been wounded, they saw complete devastation: the scattered broken glass of shop and café windows, strewn goods, lying bodies, debris and several burning police cars, blazing in the middle of the road. A huge flame, like a monster, was emitting black plumes of smoke, which hovered above in a thick dense tail, scaring people off as they tried to keep away from the fire. Smoke from the fire mixed with the remaining tear gas enveloped the air with the heaviness of lead, where the oxygen content decreased to a critical level. Nothing helped here – neither masks nor wet clothes – only passing this toxic place could save them. They decided not to pass the danger zone, because Sherif’s condition would not allow them to run through the dense smoke.
It seemed that war had begun, sweeping like a hurricane to capture every corner of the city, ruthlessly scattering everything in its way. They went in a roundabout way, hiding in doorways and narrow lanes. They heard the sounds of explosions, gunfire and screams, blows and rumbles, echoing like waves and superimposed on each other.
A huge flame was blazing somewhere in the vicinity of Tahrir. It was accompanied by thick black smoke ascending above the roofs of the houses. It was a sign of change, signalling a new era to the city’s residents. The sun had already set, and in its place was that torch, illuminating the skyline strangely.
“Congratulations! The headquarters of the National Democratic Party is burning!” a passer-by said, shaking their hands.
“We are on the verge of victory,” Sherif said. “The presidential palace is the next one.”
“Not today, Sherif. First, you should get over this,” Kate commented.
“What if you go there while I’m sick? It means I’ll miss the most interesting thing and you’ll get all the glory. No, it doesn’t suit me; I’d rather walk with a broken head than give you my victory,” he said jokingly.
“We’ll share it with you,” Kate smiled.
Sherif stopped near a grey house with a monolithic wooden entrance door.
“Here it is. Will you come in with me?”
“Thank you, but we still want to continue on our way to Tahrir, and you need to rest. Please try to follow the doctor’s orders and do that,” Kate said compassionately.
“Where are we going now?” Alexey asked irritably when they had left Sherif.
“Where we were going before – to the centre of all events – the square.”
“Hasn’t all this been enough for you? Why can’t you calm down?”
“What are you talking about, Alexey?”
“I see you’re treating things going on around here as entertainment. You are excited, you find it all interesting, maybe you’re a bit scared, but you don’t understand what’s happening. Don’t you see that people are being killed? Sherif was almost killed in front of our eyes, but you still can’t leave this alone! We must run away from this place and from this country as soon as possible.”
“Do you want to leave? What about the people? Don’t you want to help them?”
“In what way?”
“How can I help them do that?”
“By your presence. Maybe one person will change the result of this event, and that person could be you.”
“They will sort everything out themselves; it’s their country. You don’t understand anything.”
“What do you know, Alexey? You can just run without turning back, when people are being killed around you. You can’t look at people’s suffering, because you are selfish.”
“You’re wrong. I’m not selfish; I just look at things realistically, unlike you.”
They both fell silent. The same wall as had been there in the morning reappeared between them; each found that the presence of the other irked them. Their relationship did not feed them anymore; on the contrary, their affection was like a scorching sun, which had dried tender emotions and feelings, and only caused irritation, instigating outbreaks of strife.
Kate stopped at a nearby café. She saw a man through the broken glass, sitting inside next to the entrance, and looking very familiar.
“I think that’s Robbie,” she said, squinting. “Let’s go inside and talk to him.”
“Go alone; I’ll wait for you here,”
Robert was sitting in a dirty hoodie and stained jeans, with his legs crossed, sipping coffee and staring at the opposite wall. He did not notice Kate entering the café; he was not paying attention to anybody – he was immersed in his own world, full of raging thoughts and emotions.
“Robbie, is it you? I don’t believe my eyes!” Kate exclaimed enthusiastically.
“I didn’t expect to meet you either. I thought that you had already returned home.”
“What’s happened to you? Why do you look like that?”
“Nothing special, it’s just the cost of revolution,” he said, calmly. “You betrayed me, but I’m still glad to see you. Imagine: I’ve been thinking about you.”
“Me too; I’ve missed you.”
Kate spoke quickly and emotionally and her words were clear and deliberate as if she had prepared her speech in advance.
“Does that mean you still have feelings for me?”
“If you remember, when I asked you to stay friends, you refused. Now I’ll say this again: let’s be friends,” she said, holding out her hand.
“I am not against the idea,” he said.
“Tell me, did you participate in the protests?” Kate said, abruptly changing the subject.
“Yes I did. I came here from Israel because of them. In Tel Aviv airport, I found out what was going on here at the last minute; so instead of flying home I came to Cairo.”
“That’s your style. You like spontaneity.”
“Everything is so real here. A few hours ago, I was hit by a tear gas attack and miraculously escaped alive.”
“Have you come alone to the demonstration?”
“No. I have good friends among the protesters. We are a small group of activists: we prepare for demonstrations and we organise people.”
“Please introduce me to them; I’d be very grateful. I am looking at everything that is happening around me as an outsider, as an observer, but I want to see everything from the inside. I want to understand the mechanisms driving the people and I want to know who is behind all this.”
“No one is really behind all this. There are no real main organisers. There are opposition parties and groups of friends and acquaintances. Everything happens spontaneously: people decide on the internet about a place and time for demonstrations, then they call each other and plan gatherings.”
Suddenly, noises and screams could be heard from the street. The waiter dropped the shutters, closed the window and completely blocked the entrance to the café. Several people moved to the closed window and started watching the ongoing events through a small strip in the shutters. Robert turned his head abruptly, looked impatiently at them and pursed his lips, but after a few seconds, he looked calmly and confidently at Kate.
She looked away, to where a group of young boys was sitting in the smoke of cigarettes, telling stories cheerfully and ignoring the unfolding action on the street. She remembered her feelings for this man, which seemed to be as long lasting and ripe as an old wine. She felt something distant yet familiar in her heart for a moment, awakening her affection for him, and a bitter taste of regret swept across her thoughts – she felt sorry about their lost love.
“Why do you do all this, Robert? How can you fight for the foreign people’s rights?” She asked the same question that Alexey had asked her in the morning.
Robert looked at her closely and finished drinking his coffee.
“It’s hard to say. Maybe an understanding of myself has come to me through all these events. I got rid of something that has been growing in me for a long time: the lack of acceptance of the authorities in general and especially authorities like this one, who have raped their own people for decades.”
“But it’s not your country. How can you empathise with them?”
“I think, if you don’t support freedom in a foreign country, you will never support it in your own country. I am talking about whether you only worry about your limited world with its narrow problems, or you think on a larger, global scale.
“You’ve always told me that our Earth is a single, living, feeling organism where everything is interconnected. It’s the same with economic and political systems: significant changes in countries affect global processes across the whole world. Of course, everything depends on the role and weight of the country to determine how it can affect the economies of other countries. Maybe Egypt is not on the right level to affect big countries significantly, but the main thing is that it can affect other countries through its example. What has now started here is an unprecedented phenomenon in history. Egypt is awakening. The fire of protest will cleanse it from the plague of dictatorship and it will move to another level of development, to a democratic one. After the overthrow of the dictatorship, I will help them to build a public and political system based on ideas of democracy and anti-globalism. One of my tasks will be to not allow foreign countries, large international capitals and various funds to appropriate the country’s economy and manipulate it for their own selfish interests.”
She smiled. Something had changed in him, something deep and profound, as if he had found something important in life. It seemed that he had now become courageous and serious, and she felt that now he had a purpose in life giving him confidence. She felt strength in him, fresh and attractive, and she wanted to become weak and soft, snuggle against him and put her head on his shoulder.
“Alexey would disagree with you.”
“Alexey is a coward.”
“Why?” she asked, though she was nodding her head in agreement.
“Didn’t I tell you about how he got scared in the sea? On that day you left to go to town, it was a warm day so Alexey and I decided to go swimming. We went into the sea and several times I swam out very far, but Alexey was always afraid of swimming with me. He swam out a little bit and then retreated. I suggested that we swim to the yacht, which was drifting several hundred metres from us. He didn’t want to swim out there because he was afraid that he might drown. Twice I tried to get him to swim a little further away from the shallow area, but nothing worked; he kept swimming back. On the third time, after my reassurance that everything would be fine, he finally did it; we swam to the yacht, and I suggested that we should swim even further. ʻLet’s reach Saudi Arabia,’ I joked. He said nothing, only irritably waved at me with his hand, splashed water at me and swam back.
“I swam even further. When I heard a scream, I stopped and looked back: it was Alexey desperately swimming back to the yacht. I thought he had seen a shark because he was screaming so loudly. I got scared and started wondering what had happened. There were some documented stories of shark attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh at the end of last year. I was thinking, ʻWhat if a shark has bitten off his leg?’ So I swam to the yacht too. Alexey was by the yacht, and I saw him climbing up the ladder. Soon he was on it and I climbed onto the yacht after him. Alexey had small bruises near his knee and ankle and it turned out that a swarm of jellyfish had injured him. The tourists on the yacht treated his wounds and gave us champagne, but when we reached the shore, he still had not recovered and had to drink a few shots of rum. I invited him to go into the sea again, but he wouldn’t.”
“It’s a funny story,” Kate said, gently patting Robert on his shoulder.
The street noise increased and they heard pops, followed by gunshots. The café visitors suddenly fell silent. The clatter of dishes and coughing from cigarette smoke resounded loudly in the silence of the place. People were wondering what would come next. They did not dare go out, but it was also dangerous to stay in the cafe when there were clashes outside. Tension was visible in the people’s faces; they did not know what to do. Someone gripped a cigarette tightly and nervously exhaled smoke, someone stirred sugar into a cup of tea vigorously, and another anxiously tapped his fingers on the table. A terrified administrator ran into the hall and quickly announced that the café was closed and that everybody had to leave. People started leaving the café hastily.
“I have to go,” Robert said and stood up.
“Can I go with you?” Kate asked uncertainly, looking pleadingly at him, as if his answer decided her fate.
“How’s your new lover? By the way, where is he now?” Robert asked scornfully.
“He’s outside. He didn’t want to meet you,” she said and took Robert’s hand.
“Aren’t you with him?”
“No, I’m with you,” she said, half-whispering.
They reached the door and, after crouching on her knees, Kate crawled under the partly open shutters. Robert followed her.
“There he is,” she exclaimed when she saw Alexey, and shook dust from her jeans.
Robert silently gave his hand to Alexey.
“I’m leaving, Alexey,” Kate said with a cheerful look.
“Why? Do you mean that everything between us is over? Are you leaving me?” He stepped back in surprise.
“No. You misunderstand me. I’m going with Robert, because I want to meet his friends, the protest movement activists. I’ll be back.”
“What about me? Why don’t you take me with you?” he asked with a hint of disbelief in his voice. It seemed to him that she had deceived him and was breaking up with him in a delicate way.
“It’s not very safe, Alexey. There will be many police officers and there will be plenty of clashes. Perhaps we’ll be arrested or wounded.”
“I’m not afraid for myself, but I’m worried about you. We need to be together,” he insisted.
“No, I don’t want you to risk it,” she said crossly.
“Won’t you listen to me? Don’t you understand that I love you?”
Anger was in his voice but jealousy screamed inside him, making his heart beat fast and his nerves tense.
“You are unbearable. Don’t you realise that today I have to be with Robbie? I have some common business with him, and tomorrow I’ll be yours.”
“Today you are his and tomorrow you are mine. Who will it be the day after tomorrow, Kate?” He twitched his hands nervously.
“Stop insulting me. You’ve been insulting me all day. I’m not going to listen to it anymore. I’m leaving,” she shouted.
At that moment, she realised that she was tired of being in a relationship where she was being controlled. She wanted to turn around quietly and leave him without saying a word.
“I will not let you go,” Alexey said, forcing the situation even more, and firmly grabbed her arm.
“This is too much, Alexey, I’m not your property,” she said, feeling the heat rising from her overflowing anger. “Robbie, help me. He won’t let me go.”
Robert, who had been standing away without interfering in their conversation before, suddenly came up and pushed Alexey’s shoulder.
“Look, she is not your property. She decides herself where and with whom she is staying. Let her go,” he said jokingly, but with a commanding voice.
His attitude did not pose a threat, but there was a hint of a threat that could become real if Alexey continued to press the situation. Alexey realised that the battle was lost, and he released her hand.
“I will come back tomorrow night,” she said innocently.
“That’s fine, you can go wherever you want. Watch over her, Robert.”
“Don’t worry. She won’t be lost with me.”
“I promise you, Alexey, I’ll be careful. I will not be in danger with him.” She patted Robert’s back.
“Take care of yourself!” Alexey shouted to her.
“You too.” She turned around and, making an air-kiss, added, “Hurry up. There’s a curfew now.”
“Freedom! Freedom! We are free!” Screams filled the air, shattering the silence, sweeping victoriously through the corridors.
These words sounded remote and exotic, as if someone was playing a cruel joke. Their meaning did not come immediately to the prisoners’ consciousness, and it took some time for them to realise that freedom was close by, and it could disappear as quickly as it had come, leaving them with a long and anxious wait.
Suddenly, some of them got up and ran to the cell door, trying to peer out through the keyhole and see what was happening.
“What about us? You have forgotten about us. Free us. We are also prisoners,” Said’s cellmates cried out.
“Free us. We beg you.” A chorus swept the cell.
Some men, who were exhausted, lay prostrate on the floor; they had not been reacting to external stimuli for many days, but now felt a sharp surge of energy and, after shuddering in surprise, rapidly got up onto their feet.
“These are political prisoners. Let’s open their door,” a voice called from the other side of the cell door.
Heavy blows shook the metal door, but it did not give way. Prisoners crowded around it and, pushing each other, stretched out their hands, all wanting to be the first in line for freedom. Some were not able to wait any longer and uttered fragments of words or nervous guttural sounds, similar to the moans of a wounded animal, hungry for freedom. What they had been dreaming of for months, or years in some cases, was standing nearby, behind the door that had to be broken like a shell, and after coming out of anabiosis, they would find the reality of life.
Said knew it was true. He could already feel its taste and smell, and his heart was pounding in anticipation. His mind drew bright colours of the outside world, which had managed to tarnish in his imagination. It was anticipation of a new life and the return of all he had lost. Said was confident that soon he would find himself again, and his intuition would not deceive him. Images of family, his fiancée, friends and acquaintances flashed before his eyes, invoking a strong desire to get out of this place, this hell, created by people for people. He did not try to walk forward to the prisoners, crowded in the line.
“Take the keys, Ali,” said the man behind the door.
The silence lasted for ten minutes; it hung in the air with heavy yearning, soon to be replaced by disappointment. The people became despondent, thinking they had been left behind; but approaching footsteps and loud voices soon cheered them up again.
“Well done. Come here. Where did you find them, Ali?”
“In the corridor, in the pocket of the dead guard.”
The keys rattled inside the door, a lock snapped, a sharp and piercing light appeared in the half open door, and the cell was transformed. They regularly saw sunlight – they had a walk on a daily basis – but now the day looked different, somehow festive, as if during a birthday when you know that the day is special and you perceive everything around you with renewed amazement.
“Go outside. Now you are free, too,” said the man who had opened the door.
The prisoners stood still. Hands that had been stretching out to the door suddenly fell, and the men stared at their liberator with puzzled, surprised expressions. Nobody could believe what was happening.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Nobody holds you here,” the man shouted at them. “You are all free. The revolution has released you. We have released you. Thank Allah and go in peace. Go home to your wives and children. Tell them that you will never come back here because justice will come to the country soon. Tell your friends and acquaintances that we won’t harm others, we won’t touch a single person. Tell your brothers that we are coming to rescue them, and soon we all will win; and tell your sisters that we will protect them, we will shed our blood and sacrifice our lives for them. Tell your fathers and mothers that we are the worthy sons of Egypt and we will never betray our country.”
The man’s speech caused a storm of applause and released Said’s cellmates from their emotional state. They finally realised that what was happening was neither a miracle nor a dream, but an accomplished fact, and that after leaving the prison, freedom would become a reality.
“We have to run.” The thought was spinning around in Said’s head. “Before it’s too late, when they will return and block all exits and we will be trapped.” However, something stopped him from rushing forward and instead he chose to follow the others’ examples.
“What happened? Is it a revolt? Where is the security? Where are the police?” Mustafa started asking questions in disbelief, expecting a catch. It seemed to him that their release had been arranged by the police to provoke political prisoners so they could shoot them while they were trying to escape.
“There was an order from the authorities, saying that all prisoners, except political, should be released,” said Ali. “Thieves, killers, maniacs and rapists were given freedom. I’ll tell you, honestly, although I was imprisoned for theft, I don’t belong to them. When we were released, an officer told us to go to the city and to loot, kill or rape anyone who got in our way. We agreed, but then we decided to take revenge on them. We attacked them and disarmed all the guards.”
“They deserved their fate,” interrupted the man who had given the order to open the cell.
“Are you telling the truth? You’re not lying?” a doubting Mustafa asked him.
“Don’t you see it yourself, brother? I swear by Allah that this is all true,” said Ali with zeal. “Look over there. You see those dead bodies at the end of the corridor? They were our enemies.”
“Well, you are such an unbeliever, Mustafa,” said one of his cellmates.
They walked down the corridor – slowly and stealthily at first, and then boldly, with swift steps, breaking into a run. The corpses of security guards and police officers were scattered everywhere. Several policemen were lying with tied hands, cursing. The freed prisoners wanted to kick them, punch them, spit in their faces, break limbs and torture them in the same ways they had recently been tortured themselves, stretching the suffering and enjoying the agony of their victims.
Said came into the cell to look at those who had recently humiliated him.
“I hope you understand now what prison is. You’ve not tried torture yet, but already whine like cowardly dogs. Soon you will take our places,” Said said solemnly.
“Shut your mouth. Ibn il-Homaar^^24^^.”
“What did you say?”
“I told you to shut up. Kol Khara ibn el sharmuta^^25^^. While you chatter here, reinforcements are coming to us. Soon you and your thugs will be riddled and torn to pieces. You are ahbal^^26^^.”
“Take your words back and ask me for forgiveness or I’ll destroy you,” responded Said with hatred.
Some kind of animal instinct awoke in Said. He wanted to beat the policeman to death. He went up to him and kicked his face with all his strength. The policeman groaned. Two colleagues, lying tied nearby, pulled back in fear, curving their bodies like snakes. He dealt a few blows to their stomachs, and suddenly feeling the strength of his power, sat on his knees and began pounding the policeman’s head with his fists. His knuckles swelled and his hands itched, but he could not stop; an invisible force was making him beat the man continuously.
“Stop it. What are you doing? Don’t be like them,” Mustafa, who had entered the cell, shouted at him. “Don’t take an example from the bastards. You’re a human compared to these beasts. Leave him, keep your dignity.”
He took Said’s hand and pushed him away from the beaten policeman. Said panted and looked around with the expression of an enraged bull.
“Why did they do this to me? Why?” Said said, sobbing. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m a human, the same as him.”
He wept openly and bitterly without restraint, letting his feelings come out. Mustafa hugged him and began patting his head as if he was a small child.
“Calm down. Stop. You are free now. Everything is in the past,” Mustafa soothed him. “Soon you’ll be home with your family.”
Said looked at him with red, swollen, tearful eyes and smiled. He realised that he needed to forgive these people. No matter who they were, or how much evil they had done to him, they had to be forgiven and forgotten: forgotten for the future, for the sake of newfound freedom.
“Yes. You’re right, my brother. We are free. We are free, and this is power, free from all this shit,” he said, hugging Mustafa.
They came out of the cell and followed the others, wandering in the corridors in search of a way out of the building. Smoke was coming from the office of the investigator. Documents, folders and card indexes were burning fiercely, assembled in one big pile. The fire had reached a cupboard full of books, which were smouldering slowly, making a crackling sound and resembling burning brushwood. Fire was destroying the history of the prisoners and clues, erasing evidence of guilt and stigmas of shame marking the fate of the inmates. They had been given a chance, their lives had been cleared, and now everyone had to decide separately whether he could forget the past, forgive injuries, which were marked in their hearts by deep scars, and surrender to the future.
Here it was, the door to the outside world. Just a few steps further and they would leave this hell behind. Mustafa went out first and Said went after him. A variety of colours immediately caught their eyes. The sky shone bright blue. There was no limited space – neither walls nor courtyard. Only a fence stretched a hundred metres away, behind which the limitless distance was beckoning to them.
Said took a deep breath. The air was hot and dusty but seemed to be clean and fresh after long days spent in the cell. He thought that happiness was somewhere close; he only had to suffer a few more hours and then he would be home.
“We must hurry,” he said to Mustafa, as they walked towards an administrative building. “Who knows, maybe that policeman was right and reinforcements will come to them.”
Shots suddenly rang out, as if to confirm his words. A prisoner fell a few steps from the prison tower. The political prisoners scattered. Some tried to run to the open gates; others rushed back and, after turning the corner of the building, decided to wait.
“Hide!” shouted Ali, walking ahead of the prisoners, but nobody listened. The people panicked and they ran from one side to another, searching for shelter.
The shooting was coming from the administrative building. One policeman was firing on the prisoners, killing one fugitive after another. People were falling before they reached the gates. Bullets were waiting for them at the gates instead of liberty. They thought that, if they hesitated, they would lose an opportunity; but haste could lead to death. Desire was bursting out of their chests, and fearful thoughts raced in different directions like frightened rabbits. Confusion appeared in their heads, and many ran to the trap.
Ali quickly walked inside the administration building. Mustafa, Said and several other people followed him. Inmates wandered through the completely open offices. Former thieves and criminals took advantage of the situation and began stealing objects that had been left behind. They could not change their nature, and followed the call of the vice; they looted, carrying away computers, stationery, chairs and tables. Everyone carried as much as he could. Some carried monitors, while simultaneously holding plastic bags stuffed with pencils, pens, rulers, papers, cardboard folders and other small things. Some carried system units, panting and moving clumsily because of the weight. Some hastily stuffed a sack with staples, glue, clean paper, parts of a desk and a photo of Mubarak in a carved gilt frame. A slim unsightly inmate with dark circles under his eyes and bruises on his face grabbed a fire extinguisher and a metal bucket, for no apparent reason, and walked towards an exit.
They looked into every office, but the shooter was nowhere to be seen. There was chaos in all the offices where prisoners were looting, and only a toilet and a storage room, closed with a heavy metal door, were intact. The second floor was the next one they checked, but it was exactly the same situation: scattered objects and people desperately piling these items into boxes, sacks and bags, carrying objects in their hands or roaming in search of plunder in piles of rubbish.
“What’s that door?” Ali asked, pointing to a door at the end of the corridor.
“It’s the governor’s office,” said one of the prisoners.
“The door is closed. I can hear a noise. It seems that there’s someone inside,” Ali said.
He ran towards the door and pushed hard against it with all his strength, but it did not yield.
“Let’s do it, together,” Ali called out to people.
They came to the door and rushed to push it at the same time, but it was impregnable.
“It’s useless,” Mustafa said, disappointed.
“Let me see, basha^^27^^,” said a prisoner wearing a khaki-coloured cap with a cheeky-thug intonation in his voice; he looked like a burglar.
“It’s not difficult, it’s a conventional cylinder lock,” he said, leaning towards the door and scrutinizing the mechanism. “I don’t have a lockpick, but we can hit the insert out with a hammer. Surely there’s a hammer somewhere.”
“Said, walk around this floor. Perhaps you’ll find one somewhere,” Ali said.
Said walked down the corridor and, going into each office, asked the same question: “Brothers, do you have a hammer?” However, he only received negative responses. He went down to the ground floor, where eventually he was lucky enough to find a hammer lying on a table in one of the offices. He grabbed it happily and ran back upstairs as quickly as he could.
The door opened after the third hit, and after putting their heads into the office, they saw an officer with an outstretched hand, holding a gun. The first shot immediately felled the burglar who had entered first. He did not have time to understand anything, but only made an abrupt piercing sound, put his hand to the red spot on his chest, which quickly increased in size, and fell back. The others immediately retreated. Shots continued and the shooter, feeling superior, came out of his shelter and began shooting indiscriminately in the direction of the door. No one else was hurt as they leaned on both sides of the wall, waiting for the shooter to come out so they could pounce on him, but the shooter was silent. He knew that there were a lot of people waiting for him and he did not want to go out through the doorway.
Other prisoners stopped their looting and ran closer when they heard the sounds of gunfire and the shouts of the attackers.
“There’s a shooter, a shooter. Don’t come too close.” Ali’s words echoed around the floor, the inmates repeating his orders, whispering to each other in order to awaken vigilance.
“They are back. I told you we should have left quickly and not engaged in stupid things. We must get away from here,” someone’s hysterical voice was heard.
Several inmates walked to the stairs, quietly and hesitantly at first, but after reaching them they rumbled, rushing down and stomping like a herd of horses. Some returned to their suspended occupations and started rapidly piling things up, only to leave hastily with their loot after finishing. Some stood in hesitation, wondering what to do next, whether to run or to remain in anticipation of further events.
“Take the gun,” Said heard a deep, low voice behind him say. “Pass it to Ali.”
Said firmly grabbed the gun; it was hard and cold, but more valuable than anything else, as it could save their lives. He looked at Ali, standing by the other side of the door and, giving him a pleading look as if begging him not to miss it, he swung his hand and threw the gun, which flew past the doorway and was quickly caught by Ali.
Said sighed with relief. He felt as if he had got rid of a heavy load. He looked at the hammer, lying by the door, and a sudden thought came to him: he should grab the hammer and throw it in the direction of the shooter to distract his attention. At the same time, Ali would storm into the room, along with others.
He looked intently at Ali and made a sign with his hand for him to wait, then reached for the hammer. A rustle sounded in the room immediately; the shooter stiffened, took a step forward and knocked over a chair. Said lifted the hammer and threw it at the shooter who dodged out of the way and started shooting randomly. Ali, carefully observing the scene, quickly rushed into the room and fired two shots, firstly shooting the policeman in his leg, and then in his stomach.
Silence hovered in the air for a while. The shooting stopped, and no one could figure out who had won in this battle. Mustafa was the first to look hesitantly into the room and see the shooter, lying on the floor, holding his gun in his unclenched hand.
“Have you finished him?” Mustafa asked.
“Yes. Well done, guys,” Ali said solemnly. “Good job, Said.”
Said smiled. He felt pride. After a long time of feeling worthless and insignificant, his confidence returned to him again. He suddenly realised that dozens or maybe hundreds of people had been saved because of him.
“Now you are free. I repeat these words again, but now for the last time. Guys, don’t waste your time on junk. Don’t take things with you that were left by them, because it’s all useless. It’s not worth it. It’s better to go home to your families. Rejoice: go beyond the gates of this hellish place and regain life,” Ali said in a parting speech.
Ali’s words inspired Said. Although their acquaintance had lasted less than an hour, Said perceived him as an old friend. He felt as if he had known him for many years. He reminded him of the familiar leader of the movement. Said was filled with gratitude for the fact that he had been able to organise the quick assault against the shooter.
“Thank you, brother. Aren’t you from the oppositionists?” Said asked him.
“Yes, I’m with them,” Ali answered confidently. “How do you know?”
“I can see that you are one of us, that you are a good person and you are faithful.”
“Ali, let’s gather the people who are the same as you and me, and support the revolution.”
“Yes, let’s do it; but I think they have already gathered without us. We can discuss everything when we are free.”
“It’s a good idea. Where can I find you?”
“There is a mosque of Ibn Tolon in the Abdin area. Maybe you know it – it’s a big old mosque. It’s a very famous one,” Ali said.
“Yes, I know.”
“There is an Imam there. His name is Mohamed Farag. He’s my cousin. He’s a tall man with a small neat beard. Find him – he’ll give you directions.”
“Fine, Ali. Good luck to you.”
“Good luck, my friend. Maa Al Salama^^28^^.”
“Maa Al Salama.”
Said left the building. People were scurrying around here and there. Some prisoners crowded around trucks and loaded them with stolen items. Tables, chairs, shelves, rugs, window frames, monitors and system units, vases and paintings, and boxes, stuffed with unknown objects, were quickly piled into trucks. There was a feeling that it was just an ordinary relocation, and people were in a hurry to settle into a new apartment. Nobody hesitated and they were not afraid to steal from the prison; everybody was sure that they had the right to take property that did not belong to them, and moreover, that they had to empty this place in order to show their feelings and take revenge for their torment and suffering. Even some political prisoners, who had not stolen anything in their lives or misappropriated a single pound through fraud, recklessly carried off someone else’s property, and felt childish delight and satisfaction. They found a logical justification for their actions: they believed that stealing was compensation for the damage inflicted on them.
A bonfire was blazing nearby, and the flames, flaring up more and more, devoured piles of papers, folders, and other unnecessary junk. A young man, standing with an insanely furious look on his face, picked up a chair and broke it into pieces, throwing the pieces into the fire. Another man quickly came up to him with a bag, poured different sized cartons out from it, said something quietly and left.
Said approached the gates. A new period in his life started beyond them. Freedom was waiting for him beyond the small strip. He was excited. He stopped and, looking back, finally waved goodbye: to the dismal building that had instilled fear and anguish in him; to the friends he had found here who had supported him; to enemies who had caused him so much pain and destroyed his spirit every day; and to the gloomy thoughts and nightmares that had awakened him at night and stood over him like ghosts in the cell.
He came out. Blue robes were lying by the gates; the prisoners had thrown away their prison clothes and instantly put on regular clothes that they had found in the warehouse. They did not care who they belonged to, and whether they fit or not; they wanted only one thing: to get rid of an unpleasant burden as soon as possible and to start a new life. They thought that by changing their clothes, they would wash off shameful stigma and regain their confidence.
Some lucky people were greeted by relatives in their cars. They had heard that prisoners were fleeing from prisons and hurried to meet their sons, brothers and husbands. There were only a few prisoners like this. They did not have to overcome many kilometres on their own, and then wade through a rebellious Cairo to go home and be reunited with their families.
Scattered corpses, some recognisable as cellmates, were lying unnaturally on both sides of the gates like dummies, inducing fear but at the same time warning of possible danger. Said scrutinized the corpses – he found something about them drawing his attention; this feeling was beyond his power. He stared at Gamal’s dead face, a cheery and carefree guy who had always wanted to dig a tunnel and escape from the prison. Said felt sorry for him. He wanted to look away and forget what he saw, but memories, mixed with a sense of awe and sadness, washed over him and flowed from his eyes. He looked at Gamal for quite some time, and then forced himself to walk further.
A van filled with former prisoners left the prison gates and, after catching up with Said, slowed down and stopped beside him.
“Join us!” shouted Mustafa, sitting next to the driver.
Said smiled and, after walking around the van, climbed onto its body; there was no room inside. People were sitting almost on top of each other, clinging possessively to their belongings. Said wanted to jump off, but after looking at a man in a galabiya standing on the step, he straightened up and grabbed a metal support tightly. They drove off. His hands hurt from the strong grip and static position. The evening air, made colder by the van’s speed, slashed his face painfully, but he was happy. He looked around at the neighbourhood and felt joy filling his heart; he was saturated with a long forgotten, but, at the same time, new feeling that refreshed and purified his soul like a cool water spring found in an oasis. He looked at the desert that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, and felt like a traveller, lost in the sands of the Sahara, tormented and fatigued by a long search, finally finding salvation and coming out from the desert.
Said could not believe his eyes. It seemed to him as if he was sleeping and having a pleasant fairy-tale dream. Everything seemed new and unreal, and fresh feelings seized him like a powerful stream and tossed him so far into the air that his head was spinning. He wanted to cry from the overwhelming emotions, but he restrained himself and quietly wiped away an escaping tear with his hand. The constant, depressing feeling of constraint, which had accompanied him during detention, had finally left him. All his fears, worries and anxiety had vanished instantly.
Said walked on in contemplation, not noticing anything around him. Only one direction was in his head, leading and attracting him like a beacon: his house. He could already feel its breath and its welcoming warmth. He could not wait any longer to see his mother, father and sister, to look into their eyes and hug them.
Deafening shots brought him quickly out of his dream state and he was startled by the unexpected noise. After looking around, it was only now that he realised how unusual the urban landscape was. The city had been plunged into gloomy darkness. Cafés and shops that were usually open late at night were now closed. The city seemed to be extinct; its streets were empty with neither people nor cars to be seen.
He passed by a fashion store. The store was empty. People had taken everything, even hangers and the empty cash till. Naked mannequins with torn off hands and feet were scattered in the glass showcases.
Several teenagers ran past like a pack of stray dogs, shouting and whooping. They were holding large sticks and they smashed car windscreens along their way, breaking the windows of already empty shops. They kicked plastic bottles, cartons and other debris on the street, as if competing with each other to see who among them could inflict the most damage.
“Come on, easy. More, more,” they shouted, encouraging each other.
“The first person to run to that jeep and break its windscreen will be champion of the district and will receive fifty pounds,” the eldest of them cried out, a boy wearing bright red trainers with white striped sweatpants. He was dressed in a stylish grey hoodie and black rap cap on his head. Said assumed that he had stolen the clothes from a store and immediately put them on.
His friends ran as fast as they could, competing with each other to receive the title and money prize, pushing each other, kicking and trying to trip each other up. One of them fell, but immediately stood up and, after swearing, ran forward, reaching his friends.
“Khalas^^29^^. Khalas,” Said shouted after them. “Stop it, or I’ll box your ears.”
“Shut up, prisoner, Ibn El Sharmuta^^30^^,” he heard in response. They had instantly identified that he was a former prisoner by his shaved head.
Said wanted to catch them and was preparing to run after them, but then he remembered what had happened in the prison today, when he had beaten the policeman and had been shamed by Mustafa afterwards.
“In fact,” he thought, “I shouldn’t lose my dignity because of some youngsters. They are just kids.”
He looked at the sky, but there was nothing to see there – no stars and no moon. It was covered in a dirty haze, a veiled skyline with a thick shroud. Fire and smoke had closed the city off from the brilliance of the night sky. Suddenly, a strange desire, which he used to have when he was a child, came to him. He wanted to fly over the city, looking at everything from above, and quickly head for home. He felt easiness and joy in his chest. “It’s so good that I am free,” he thought. “I can walk along the streets, dream, think, desire, and know that the world has no restrictions, because everything is possible in life. All obstacles are within us. They are artificially created and caused by fear.”
“I am free!” he shouted. “I am free! Viva freedom!”
“Why are you shouting?” an elderly man asked him.
“I’ve fled from the prison and now I’m going home. But what are you doing here? It’s not safe now; different gangs roam around the city.”
“What am I doing here? What do you think?” the man asked him.
“They took everything with them that they possibly could,” he continued with annoyance in his voice, pointing to a home appliances store on the other side of the street. “They loaded a truck full of goods and threw away what didn’t fit. I saw how they threw out a TV and it crashed on the asphalt. They could have returned it or put it on the street. Someone might have picked it up. No, they didn’t want to share. They are dogs. It was such a good flat-screen TV; I could have had it. We have a very old one. I bought it during Sadat time, one year before Mubarak came to power, when my third son was born. I called him Anwar.”
“Wouldn’t you feel disgusted about stealing?” Said asked, surprised that such a seemingly decent man did not respect other people’s property.
“No. It isn’t disgusting. They didn’t feel disgust while they’ve been robbing us for the last thirty years. My youngest son will have a child soon, but we have the one, the same president, permanent like a Pharaoh. He has built palaces and maintains servants on our money, but we, like slaves, work for piastres and live from hand to mouth. Do you think that I haven’t earned a miserable TV over decades of my beggarly existence? How much effort have I invested in this country? How much have I worked? I brought everything to my family, I gave up things to pay my taxes, I spent several years in the army that undermined my health, and I got no help from the state – only humiliation, kicks and rejection. So, my conscience is clear. It’s they who are like dirty pigs. They are unclean animals. I hope they burn in hell.”
“Stealing is a grave sin. Chop off a thief’s hand as exemplary punishment from Allah,” Said said, citing the Koran.
The man thought for a few moments and then spat.
“OK. It’s too late. I’d better visit other stores. Maybe they’ve left something behind. If there is a TV, my wife will be happy, and if there are two, then it’ll be a festival. Besides, I’ll come by the mobile salon. You can join me if you want.” The man smiled and winked at Said with one eye, as if trying to seduce him for theft.
“No, thank you. I have to go another way, to my family,” Said said and walked away.
A few kilometres before his house he saw another robbery. People were flowing out from a four-storey building, carrying sofas, large quilts, plastic mops and buckets, carpets and chairs. It was a store where furniture and various household goods were sold. Some looters were trying to get inside, pushing others who were leaving the store and carrying things away; this created a jam and confusion, accompanied by shouts and curses. A fight broke out between two of the looters, resulting in one of them being knocked to the ground after being punched in the face. Friends of the fallen guy ran up to him immediately, raised him up, shouting and outraged, and surrounded the other man.
“Haven’t you had enough? Stop all this!” The voice of a woman was heard from the first floor of a house adjacent to the store.
Mocking laughter and the sound of a window breaking pealed in response.
“Scoundrels!” the woman shouted, disappearing behind the broken window.
Said felt anger; he wanted to stand up for those insulted, but he said nothing. It was obvious that he didn’t have forces on his side, and the gang of thugs would destroy him.
“What if they were bullying my mum in the same way?” he thought. “Perhaps they have raided our apartment, attacked or injured my family. How will they protect themselves, two women and one man?” His heart was suddenly gripped by fear, imagining his family being attacked by a similar gang and their property from the house being carried away, and he firstly quickened his pace, and then ran.
He rang the doorbell and heard the sound of the shambling feet of his father, who always walked lazily in the apartment as if sliding slowly across the floor. The door was not open; on the contrary, the sound of keys and creak of a lock pointed to the fact that the door was closed with many locks.
“Please, open for me,” Said asked.
“Who is it?” his father asked him.
“It’s me, Dad, your son.”
“Our son is not here. Our son is in prison. Go away,” his father said irritably.
“That’s me, Said. Dad, don’t you recognize me?” Said said desperately.
“Who else is there? They have reached us,” his mother’s voice was heard.
“He is saying that he’s Said. Shall we open? It sounds like his voice,” his father said with a doubting tone in his voice.
“So that he will rob us? Not for any reason. He is one of them, they’re bandits. Youssef, you’d better call the police. Call the police immediately,” his mother commanded.
“Mum,” the voice of his sister sounded. “What police? Police don’t exist any longer. They were disbanded. There’s chaos in the country. The police have left and bandits have come instead of them. Criminals are freed, the army is inactive. We have watched the TV together.”
“What shall we do?” his mother exclaimed hysterically.
“I’ll call the TV. Maybe they can help us,” father said.
“How? Will they send TV reporters, who will shoot how we are being robbed and raped, and then show us around the world?” Jamila exclaimed, laughing.
“But we won’t be robbed in front of them,” his mother said hopefully.
“I think they have a hotline. I’ve seen a number,” his father remarked, confused.
“Call them, Youssef. Don’t linger,” Fatima commanded again.
“You are so naïve. Those like us are half of the city. Their phone probably doesn’t stop ringing. You are adults, you should understand everything yourself: only we can defend ourselves,” Jamila said accusingly.
“Mum, but it’s me,” Said suddenly shouted with a hint of desperation; he was ready to sob like a little child who had been unfairly punished and was left alone.
“Said, my boy! It’s you! It’s him! Don’t you hear? Open the door, Youssef. It’s our Said,” his mother shouted at last.
Father, mother – how they had aged! His father had more grey hairs on his head and his beard had become completely white, giving his face a look of nobility and aristocracy. His mother was noticeably slimmer and her forehead had furrowed wrinkles, visibly standing out above her eyes. He saw tears in her eyes. Tears of happiness flowed easily, exuding joy and washing away the sadness and pain, which had accumulated in her heart since she heard the news that he was in prison.
“Let me kiss you, my son,” his mother wailed, kissing Said’s cheeks. “You’ve lost weight but you’ve matured, you’re now a complete adult. We’ve missed you so much. We saw a report on Al Jazeera that many prisoners were shot during a prison riot. I was so desperate.”
“Son, how did you manage to flee? Tell us,” his father said, putting his hand on Said’s shoulder.
“He is tired. Bring him something to eat, mother,” Jamila said, smiling and looking in amazement at the exhausted Said; she still did not believe that her brother had returned.
He ate his meal and then lay down on his bed, which he had always dreamed of in prison. He quickly fell asleep, but woke up soon afterwards. The ticking of the clock seemed like the noise of the guard’s keys as he opened the door of the cell in order to let in a new prisoner. Soon he fell asleep again.
The new prisoner was an old prisoner. Said knew him. He had escaped from prison, but had been caught and brought back. After arriving, he immediately came to Said and started pushing him.
“I want to sleep, what do you want?” Said said sleepily, and closed his eyes again.
“Wake up.” The prisoner continued shaking Said.
Said opened his eyes, yawned and stretched. He looked at the prisoner and suddenly, startled, jumped, sat down and began to rub his eyes. Gamal, who he had seen lying dead by the prison gate, was standing in front of him. He was alive. He smiled, stretching out his hand to Said.
“Wake up. I came to you.”
“Go away. Don’t bother me in my sleep,” Said said; he closed his eyes in his dream and then opened them again. “You’re dead. How could you have come here?”
“No. I’m alive, just as you are. You can see me now, because our worlds cross in a dream, in your dream. I wasn’t killed, I ran away. Remember I told you that I wanted to dig a tunnel. I dug it and I was freed. The person who was killed was not me.”
Said woke up completely now; he felt a chill which swept over his entire body. He went into the kitchen and lit a cigarette. After finishing his cigarette, he returned to his room and took another blanket from the closet, covered himself with it and lay on the bed for a long time, remembering the prison inmates and Gamal, who had dreamed of cutting through the wall and escaping from the prison.
A new life and new hassle started in the morning. The day was sunny and quiet and nothing seemed to indicate how turbulent yesterday had been.
Said’s father told him that looters were rampaging in the city, many families had been robbed and now everybody protected themselves as best as they could.
“Why doesn’t the army restore order? Why don’t they destroy all these bandits?” Said asked his father.
“They say that the scale of riots is not large, but it’s a lie. The whole city is seized by looting. They are everywhere. We are even afraid to leave our house,” his father said.
“Something has to be done, Dad. I’ve seen these people, in the prison and on the way home. They are beasts; they won’t stop at anything.”
“Yes. They are scum. Everybody who isn’t lazy is now engaged in looting. These people have lost their conscience and the police have joined them.”
“What shall we do?” asked Jamila as she entered the living room.
“We have to defend ourselves. All the male neighbours will meet this afternoon and decide how we can do it. Our neighbour from the sixth floor, Nasr, is the initiator; he came to see us this morning.”
All the neighbours came out in the afternoon and, after gathering by the entrance door, they held an emotional discussion for half an hour about how to protect themselves from looting. Fears of insecurity and rampant criminals made everybody nervous. People were angry that the police had dispersed and now they were left alone with the robbers.
Nasr stopped the discussion and announced loudly that the other houses had already established squads, so they also had to follow their examples and protect their homes with their own forces. A checkpoint was immediately set up and a metal fence, borrowed from the nearby fire station, was put around it. A lane leading to the house was blocked. Duty shifts of vigilantes were arranged. Said was assigned to night duty, but his father was freed from the responsibility of patrolling as he was elderly and had heart problems; besides, they already had enough volunteers.
“Said, son,” his mother said, when he returned from the discussion. “Now you are our support and our breadwinner. All shops are closed in our area, and the food is gone. There’s not even a single loaf of bread. Please go and search for an open store. Neighbours have said that the ʻMetro’ supermarket might be open.”
“Let me go with Dad, Mum. We’ll find something for sure.”
“Son, I’m afraid of letting your father go. He is weak. If a gang attacks, he won’t be able to stand up for himself. His heart is too poor; he smokes too much. Besides, we need a man in the house because who knows what might happen. Go yourself, son. Take the biggest bag; buy bread, chicken, meat, pasta, oil, maybe something else. Take two hundred pounds. I think that’s enough,” his mother said, handing him crumpled banknotes. “Take care of yourself, son. Avoid suspicious people and talk to no one. It’s best not to argue with anyone on the way and if something happens, run away.”
“Don’t worry, Mum, I can stand up for myself. The prison has taught me,” Said said. He quickly got ready and left the house.
He went to the supermarket and took a basket. Only diapers, a few bars of soap, wet wipes, a bag of dried fruits, vinegar and Turkish coffee were on the shelves. The main products had gone – there was no water, no meat, sugar or milk.
“Is there bread?” Said asked.
“No,” an assistant said casually.
“And when will you have it?”
“Come back tomorrow.”
“Will it be here tomorrow for sure?”
“It might be, or it might not. Inshaallah.^^31^^”
“How can I live without bread?”
“Try the bakery around the corner. They might have some leftovers.”
He disappointedly put the empty basket back and, after leaving the store, turned the corner. The bakery was closed tightly with shutters, as was the small shop nearby.
He walked down Sudan Street for a long time until he came to the Behus metro station. After crossing to the other side of El Behus Street, he remembered that his school friend, Ramadan, lived somewhere around here. His family owned a small shop, around the corner from a café where they had often spent time skiving lessons, playing backgammon and drinking strong tea. They had particularly disliked chemistry – the subject was complicated and confusing; chemical reactions seemed meaningless and too intricate. Together they would run away from the school and, after the essential consumption of a glass of sugar cane juice in a small juice shop, they would go to the café. Ramadan’s father sometimes saw them in the café; he knew they were skiving lessons and he became very angry with them. He was unhappy, not because they skipped lessons, but because of Ramadan’s lies: he constantly invented new excuses. He was also disappointed that Ramadan was lazy and did not help his father, whose business was hard and laborious. His father and older brother slept only four hours a day and all their time was dedicated to the store, which required constant attention. Unloading, capitalizing, inventory of goods, sorting, accounting and cleaning – it all took a lot of time, yet they had to sell goods to buyers and look happy and friendly, because people came not only for shopping, but to have cheerful conversations. Ramadan’s father did not have assistants and he engaged his sons for work, including the youngest that had just started school, and the eldest brother in the family, who had married recently and was waiting for his firstborn. Ramadan did not like working in the store; he skived the duties imposed on him by his father, using different excuses, and at every opportunity he tried to run away. Occasionally, when his father and the eldest son could not cope with work, Ramadan had to skip school and stay in the store, serving customers. Said would understand the reason for his absence and after coming to the store, would see Ramadan sitting behind the counter with a bowed head and an expression of anguish and despair in his big black eyes. Said would buy two small milk chocolate bars from Ramadan, who would boil the kettle and they would drink tea in silence, munching the chocolate and enjoying its sweetness.
Despite his father’s business, Ramadan’s family was always in need. The store brought them a good profit, but, as Ramadan had once told him in confidence, his father had borrowed enough money to buy several apartments. However, they only had one apartment, and the rest of the money was wasted on some unprofitable projects, which his father had invested in, and which burst like soap bubbles shortly after opening, emptying his wallet and plunging their family into more debt.
The shop was closed with metal shutters, with an indecent English word written in black paint on them. Said thought that Ramadan’s father was probably hiding in the store, zealously protecting his goods from an onslaught of looters, and decided to knock just in case. After his quiet hesitant knock turned into powerful metal shaking, an irritated voice was heard from the nook next to the shop, where the reception of a laundry was located.
“Who is it?”
“Is the shop open?” Said asked uncertainly.
“Can’t you see?” the voice said, and the head of Ramadan’s father stuck out from the nook.
“It’s me, Said. I am Ramadan’s school friend. Don’t you recognise me, uncle Kamal?” Said said, finally remembering his name.
“Oh, it’s you. I thought it was one of them, baltageyah^^32^^. What do you want? Don’t you know that normal people are staying at home now? Only the bad guys are out, robbing or at the barricades.”
Kamal came out from hiding, wearing a grey galabiya and holding a large metal rod; he lit a cigarette and stared at Said with an incredulous look, as if Said was trying to cheat him.
“Yesterday I fled from the prison. I was there for about a month, but I feel like I’d been there for several years. I met with my family and now I’m wandering, searching for bread,” Said said with a tired voice.
His words about prison and bread sharply affected Kamal. He threw away the unfinished cigarette, quickly unlocked the shutters, with no doors and no glass in the windows behind them, and waved his hand, asking Said to come inside.
“And how is Ramadan? Is everything OK with him?” Said asked, selecting food from the shelves.
“What will happen to him?” said Kamal. “He came home dirty last night, like a stray dog, and left again in the morning. He goes to protests all the time and doesn’t care that his father’s shop was almost robbed yesterday, some bastards rushed inside it. ‘There are more important things,’ he told me. ‘Close your shop. It doesn’t bring money anyway. It’s better to go to demonstrations, which all decent people do, and seek justice.’ He doesn’t think how to live, how to feed the family. None of them understands that only through work can we improve life in this country. What could demonstrations give us? Well, we’ll get rid of our president. Do you think the new one will be better? Here, look at the rubbish by the bins. Nobody has cleaned them for a week. Everyone is passing by and throwing it away. I feel disgusted that garbage is scattered around. The stench is overwhelming, stray dogs and cats are everywhere.
“Instead of protesting, they would be better putting things in order in the country, but they only organise unrest. The police have been dispersed. They hunted them so they fled. People don’t know what to do by themselves. They have organised some squads but I refused to take part in them. I wanted to defend the district, but who would protect my shop? I suggested that they help me and they told me: ‘It’s your property; you own it and you defend it.’ So here we are, me with my eldest son on duty, sometimes in turns, sometimes together. Thankfully, the laundry owner allowed us to stand guard in his place. He asked us to watch his valuables at the same time. Although what valuables does he have? It’s only irons, hangers and ironing boards.
“Take more. Don’t be shy. Where else will you find an open shop? Nobody knows when the situation will improve. There’s a shortage of food across the city. Soon we’ll start eating stray pigeons and cats.”
“I love pigeon. My mother cooks them – so tasty. Yummy,” Said said, smiling.
The food selection was scarce, and Said took everything that had been left on shelves – two packs of rice, sunflower oil, a few cans of tuna, ketchup, pasta, halawa, cheese and chips.
“Where’s the bread?” he asked.
“It’s finished. Wait, there should be some somewhere.” Kamal took several old dry pieces of flat bread from under the counter. “It’s stale, but it’s edible. Soak it in water and it’ll become softer, or dip it in tahina.”
“Thank you for that. A thousand times thank you,” Said said, wrapping the bread in the newspaper lying on the counter and putting it inside his rucksack. “How much is it, by the way?”
“It’s one hundred and twenty pounds.”
Said handed two hundred pounds to Kamal and, after taking the change, put it in his jeans’ pocket.
“Well, good luck to you. Say hello to Ramadan. Let peace be in your house, and may Allah guard your family and your business.”
“Shukran^^33^^. Salam,” Kamal said.
For dinner, his father’s cousin, who lived two blocks away, knowing that they had were short of food, had brought a rooster that she had kept with other living creatures in her kitchen in a small two room apartment. His mother fried it, keeping the guts in reserve to cook lunch using the ventricles, liver and other offal the next day.
“So tonight, Said, Omar and Mohammed will be on duty before the first Salat,” said Nasr when they gathered just before midnight.
“Do you have any weapons?” Nasr asked Mohammed.
“Will a kitchen knife suit you?”
“Yes, bring it,” Nasr said.
“I’ve got a baseball bat and also a sword,” Said said.
“That’s good too. Bring it all – pipes, sticks, hammers, kitchen utensils: for example, pans, knives, butchering boards. Generally, all items that can be used for defence will be useful. We also need torches. It’s difficult to spot drivers in the dark.”
They left and soon reappeared, carrying in their hands everything that could protect them. Said brought out an old sword and began swinging it in different directions, dancing, jumping and lunging his legs and arms. He tried to repeat a dance that was often demonstrated during weddings and festivals.
“This sabre is about two hundred years old. It was gifted to me by my father – your grandfather – and before that it was given to him by his father. So it has passed down from generation to generation,” his father had said, when Said had asked him for the silver sword. Pulling it out from its sheath, he had kissed it. “Kiss it too, son. It is for good luck. It is the talisman of all our family.”
Said had leaned his lips slightly to the cold steel and tenderly taken it with his hands. He had imagined how the sword was used in battles, how people were blessed with it and cherished it as a family heirloom. Its cold touch gave him a sense of antiquity and courage. He felt responsible for his family and ancestors. The fear and anxiety had gone, and he was instilled with the power of spirit, which strengthened his confidence and gave him bravery.
“Your dancing is quite good, Said,” Omar exclaimed, smiling.
“Let me hold it,” Mohammed said breathlessly.
“OK, guys. Play with it for a while, but don’t forget about the danger. Be attentive to all people and to any transport. Don’t let anybody go through the fence without checking them. Inspect cars; ask questions. Be especially wary of motorcycles and trucks. If they stop, immediately raise the alarm. Here’s a walkie-talkie for you. If you see someone suspicious, contact me. Can you use it?” Nasr asked Said and quickly showed him how to use the walkie-talkie.
“It’s OK, we’ll handle it. We’ll be waiting for the shift change after morning Salat.”
“Then I’ll leave you guys,” said Nasr.
Nasr left them and they settled down to their shift. Said sat on a plastic chair and lit a cigarette. Omar went to get an extra tool of defence – he said it was a necessary and effective one – and soon he returned.
“What have you brought?” Said asked the laughing Omar, a neighbour from the fifth floor, who was three years younger than he was.
“Don’t you see? It’s a tube from the vacuum cleaner,” Omar answered.
“Do you think it’ll help you?”
“Look, I can fence. Take it,” he said, dismantling the tube into two parts, and handing Said the part of the tube with a brush at the end.
“Here it comes!” He made a sudden lunge and thrust with his plastic tube into Said’s stomach.
Said laughed, and after taking a step back, raised his free hand, and snatched the tube from Omar’s hands; but Omar’s reaction was much faster: he snatched up the tube from Said’s hands and threw it away.
“Shall we wrestle now?” Omar asked.
Said went to him with his bare hands and tried to grab the neck of his jacket, but his hands were intercepted and sharply folded over, causing his whole body to bend.
“Enough, I give up,” Said said quickly.
“More wrestling?” Omar asked Said again.
Said ran with all his might to Omar, but then stumbled into his iron hands which he used to throw Said away. Said fell on the pavement, but immediately got up, dusting himself off, and looked suspiciously at the winner.
Omar smiled and walked closer to Said, grabbed him below his armpits, lifted him up and then turned him over in the air. A surprised Said began to make guttural sounds.
“You are so strong, brother,” Said said. “Where did you learn to fight?”
“I learned it on the streets of our town,” Omar said grinning. “I also watched a lot of films with Bruce Lee. I have a very good kinetic memory; my gymnastics teacher said at the school that that is memory for movement. I liked to repeat scenes from the movies from my childhood.”
Omar had arrived in Cairo with his family six years ago, from a small town in Upper Egypt, located between Assiut and Sohag. He was a simple, kind young man, a little bit lazy but very cordial, ready to help at any moment. Said remembered him as a teenager – thin and shy, constantly running around the district with his friends in search of new adventures. He had radically changed within recent years; he had grown up and become big.
The night passed quietly. A few cars drove by, but they were tenants of their house and neighbouring houses; after showing their documents they had been allowed to pass. Three motorcyclists whirled around the streets, their bikes making buzzing sounds like wasps, carrying danger with them. After seeing them, Said and his colleagues became anxious, hoping they would not be stung. One of the motorcyclists stopped in their lane, but after seeing the roadblock he turned and waved his hand to the others, waiting for him on the street, then led them away, in search of a more vulnerable place and the chance to use their caustic sting of looting and violence.
Kate took out the mirror with its metal stand and put it on the small coffee table beside the bed.
“Oh, how I’ve changed. I’m so tired,” she thought, looking in the mirror, and began to scrutinise the dark circles under her eyes, as well as her face which had become slightly thinner.
“How Alexey exhausted me with his prohibitions and constant attention. I can’t stand it when I’m told how to live. Do I love him? I guess it’s not love – we are completely different – but with Robert I am connected by the past. Yes, we got fed up with each other. We wanted novelty. Different events during this trip overshadowed our feelings and we became less attentive to each other. We got involved too much in external things and forgot what united us. What unites me with Alexey? It’s only this country. We don’t have a past or a future. We are too different and we can’t be together. He doesn’t understand me; he doesn’t understand what I want. He has other beliefs. Yes, there’s something in him, and I feel that there is something similar between us. He is also in search of something, as I am. He is nice. No wonder I fell in love with him; he has qualities that Robbie doesn’t have. He is romantic, he cares about me; but he is not an adventurer. Yes, he would be a perfect husband. He would be a caring head of the family; but I’m not ready for that yet – it’s too early for me to think about marriage. What should I do? Who do I really love? Who should I stay with? I’m confused,” she thought, and looked again in the mirror.
After taking mascara from a cosmetic bag, she took out the brush and began to apply it gently to her lashes. Then she pencilled her eyebrows and pouted her lips, wondering whether she should put lipstick on or leave them as they were. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror and suddenly felt optimistic.
“There’s no difference, after all,” she thought.
“I think I’ll colour my lips,” she said aloud.
“Good morning, dear,” Robert said, suddenly entering her room without knocking.
“Good morning, Robbie,” she said cheerfully.
“How are you feeling, darling?” he asked.
“Perfect. I’m full of energy and optimism. I’m ready to go to demonstrations and barricades.”
“That’s because you’re back with me.”
“Yes, you definitely have a positive influence on me,” she said, putting her make-up back in the cosmetic bag. She smiled at him, fresh and revitalised. “How is your mood, Robbie?”
“You know, I’ll tell you honestly, I’m starting to miss London with its leisurely, unhurried pace of life, but at the same time its richness in terms of various cultural events. Do you remember how often we visited exhibitions and museums; you especially liked exhibitions in the V&A^^35^^ and in the British Museum, didn’t you? Didn’t you go there on your own sometimes to study artefacts from ancient Egypt?”
“Yes. I did. There’s a unique collection there and there is a free tour at two o’clock around the Egyptian part of the museum,” she said, and paused for a moment, recalling the rich cultural life in London. “But Robert, everything has its own time. Don’t you think we are needed here now more than in England?”
“Yes, it’s interesting here, but it’s very dangerous,” Robert said thoughtfully. “It’s too dangerous and we don’t know how all this will end.”
“You’re starting to talk like Alexey. I know that you’re different, Robbie; you’re brave.
“You know, I think we as a country took a lot from our former colonies,” she continued. “We used and exploited people, we lived off their resources and we plundered their treasures and riches. Take, for example, the huge collections in our museums – to a large extent they consist of treasures taken from our colonies. Nobody knows how much wealth has settled in private collections. Yes, we have given our colonies a lot from the point of culture and civilization, but we took a lot too. At that time, we imposed our values on them and tried to extend ours. Now they come into our country and change our way of life. We have become a multinational country. We have become a supranational country.”
“I don’t understand, Kate. What do you want to say with all this?” Robert asked.
“We live in the city, in cosmopolitan London, where nationality is not so important. Other values are important for people, the values of democracy. So far, Western democracy is the best way of ruling countries that has been invented and we are living in a democratic society, enjoying its benefits; don’t you think so?”
“I don’t agree with you, dear. We are far from perfect. We are not ideal and can’t be,” Robert said.
“But I want to say another thing,” Kate said. “It’s about our mission. As citizens of a country that is closest to democratic values, we must carry this knowledge to other nations and, just as during colonial expansion, we have to expand our model in the name of development for all mankind. We have to give more than we have taken away from them. We took freedom from them and they returned it, and now we will teach them how to handle it properly.”
“Don’t you think that our political model is a wrong one and, moreover, a dead-end one? Look at what we have. Some elements involved in politics, connected to big businesses, own newspapers, television and other media. The consciousness of people is being manipulated, democratic values are substituted, and we are brainwashed.”
“You say that we are brainwashed because TV belongs to big businesses, but consider our television – the main channels are state-owned. There are no interests of large companies there.”
“What’s the difference? The effect is the same. The state interest is evident here. Here we have lobbying of the state position. So our television is far from the truth.”
“You are right; but what is the truth? Where is it?”
“It exists, darling. As well as my love for you,” he said gently, trying to change the subject.
She liked his comparison, and her face lit up. She felt joy from those words, and it seemed to her that he was telling the truth and loved her selflessly.
“I don’t know how I could have lived without you these past few weeks,” she said, emotionally.
“Me neither, my love. I’ve missed you, you know. I recalled our shared past and how good I felt with you. Do you remember when we went to Wales at the end of summer? The weather was awful; it was cloudy and cold. It was very romantic, and every day we walked down the huge hill to the sea, across a large golf course, turning between the winding ravines and dunes. We reached the sea, where there wasn’t a single person, and we walked along the beach, watching as it began to surge, the hills and mountains visible far away in the haze. We kissed and then ran after each other, and we had fun.”
“Yes. It was a great time,” she said thoughtfully, and a soulful smile crept across her face. “You’ve become more romantic, Robbie.”
She continued smiling and looking dreamily into the distance, remembering their short vacation in Wales. There had been the picturesque green mountains and an ancient impregnable castle made from grey stone, surrounded by a moat. There was the bizarre sky, sometimes black, like a funnel hurricane, sometimes grey, unfolding in an attempt to free itself from the yoke of heavy clouds and let the sun’s rays through. She remembered a frequent drizzling rain; it had started and finished unexpectedly. She remembered the feeling of happiness. Perhaps it was the peak of their relationship. After returning to London, they were caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday responsibilities and their love became less bright and romantic. Robert became completely immersed in his plans and ideas, trying to turn some of them into reality, and at first, it had irritated and frustrated her. She had not understood his interests; but then, after overcoming her annoyance, she had decided to take part in some activities, and soon, to her surprise, had realised that she appreciated his philosophy. It seemed to her at the time that she had opened a secret room in her character, which she had previously kept closed and unvisited. It was a room with a thirst for freedom, adventure and discovery. She had always suspected that there was some mechanism inside her that made her life brighter and more interesting. When Kate was bored and felt depressed, she tried to turn this mechanism on; at first it had been unconsciously, and then, more consciously and purposefully. Sometimes, when depression weighed her down so much that life seemed to be meaningless, she began to look for the danger and, after finding it, turned on this mechanism, forgetting about her profound thoughts and problems.
Robert moved from the chair to the sofa, closer to Kate. He looked at her with languid, loving eyes and smiled blissfully.
“Come to me, my love,” he said softly, patting her neck.
Kate felt the warmth of his hands, strong but at the same time gentle. She wanted to cuddle up to him, to be in his power, to feel his body, and she obediently clung to him.
“You know, I want us to be together, always together, where nothing and no one can separate us,” he said. “I want us to live together, and have children.”
“What do you mean, Robert?” she asked, and moved slightly away from him.
“I want to marry you. I want you to be my wife. I want to be engaged to you, and have a wedding before my birthday. Let’s make a revolution here, overthrow the regime and then immediately fly back to England. We’ll get married and go on our honeymoon; we’ll spend it in Wales, in a small town in the hills, where you can see an endless sea. Never mind that it’s winter and very cold there now; we’ll sit in the house, wrapped in blankets, and warm ourselves by the fireplace. We’ll go out sometimes, to look at the magnificent view from the top of the hills, and then we’ll go down to the sea, which will be rough and raging. But nothing will frighten us, because we’ll be together.”
“I’m not ready for that yet, Robert,” Kate said, embarrassed by his proposal.
“I wasn’t ready either, darling, but last night after you went to bed, I thought about us for a long time. You know, this evening, I’ll buy tickets to London, and soon we’ll go home to get married. If the revolution hasn’t finished by that time, we’ll return to Cairo as a married couple and support our friends.”
Kate pondered this, a bewildered look appearing on her face. She was surprised and did not fully understand what was happening. They had never even touched on a conversation about marriage. Robert had liberal views; he believed that if two people loved each other, they did not have to bind their relationship with unnecessary formalities and impose additional obligations on each other. He believed that everyone should be free – everyone should have a choice to end a relationship – and marriage, being an obstacle, made this choice harder for both partners. Now, Robert was saying the opposite. He wanted her to marry him. It was too sudden for Kate. Just an hour ago, she had thought that she wasn’t ready for marriage, and now she had received a proposal, and it came from a man who she had known for a long time and maybe loved.
“Robert, everything is moving too quickly, and it’s not right,” she said uncertainly. “This is wrong. I must go to Alexey, and pick up my belongings from him. I will tell him that it’s all over, but I won’t promise you anything and I don’t want to marry you at this stage. Shall we go to see Alexey tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow or the day after; don’t rush to see him,” he said, frustrated. “You know, I’m not in hurry and I don’t want to hurry you. If you aren’t sure about your feelings towards me, then I’ll wait; but listen to your heart and ask yourself who you’ll be really happy with. I know the answer, because I know you. We’ve been together for just over a year, and I know what you want. I know how to please you and make you happy.”
At that moment, Wessam came into the living room; he looked rested and happy.
“What is the news?” Robert asked him cheerfully.
“Nothing special. I still haven’t recovered from yesterday. I still remember the clashes and victims.”
“What you told me has shocked me, although we all saw enough yesterday; but we won the battle. At least one of our enemies doesn’t exist anymore – I mean the police.”
“They were disbanded, but today they have been spotted somewhere else. It seems they attacked protesters in Heliopolis, dressed in civilian clothes. By the way, the office of the National Democratic Party is completely burnt, demonstrations continue in the city and the army have taken the place of the police, but they have not started any confrontations.”
“And you said there was no news! It’s good news, wonderful news. We are moving towards victory,” Robert said solemnly.
“Robert, I’m going to rest; it was a hard day yesterday after all. Please give me something to read,” Kate asked Wessam with a weary voice.
“Look for anything on the shelves. There are many different things in your room. There are books in English.”
“See you later,” Kate said, disappearing into the hallway.
“Relax,” Robert shouted after her.
“I want to share something with you,” Robert said, when the door of Kate’s room had closed. “I have to fly to London. I need to find a suitable woman to marry. It’s urgent, and it’s going to happen before my thirtieth birthday. I’ll be thirty on the fifteenth of February.”
“Why are you in such a rush, Robert? You should only marry if you love a person. What about your love, Kate? Does she agree?”
“That girl doesn’t know what she wants. She doubts and hesitates. I don’t know if I can convince her, and if not, I’ll split up with her. I would not need her any longer. She dumped me once; I don’t want her to do it a second time.”
“You are an interesting person, Robert. Is it the thirtieth birthday that influences a man? Have you been hit by the crisis, and you don’t know what else to do to raise your image in your own eyes and look like an accomplished man? I divorced when I was thirty years old. I realised that my marriage was a mistake, and I had something urgent to undertake to rehabilitate myself in my own eyes; but you, on the contrary, want to get married faster, and exactly before thirty years.”
“It’s not like that, Wessam. It’s another case. Once, I told you that, if the revolution was delayed and the regime resisted, I could support you financially, as you would need cash resources. You complained that you needed sponsors. I promised you I’d find sponsors in the form of the Western human rights organisations, foundations and corporations. I lied to you. I want to be a sponsor myself because I’m a millionaire. I’m a potential millionaire.”
Wessam opened his mouth in surprise. He thought that Robert had become exhausted in recent days, been carried away by too many ideas of revolution, and now he was in a condition similar to delirium and was raving, making a wish into a reality. “Maybe he drank or smoked something strange,” he thought.
“Let me give you some tea, Robert. Do you like it strong – with milk?” Wessam started talking quickly, with the voice of a kind teacher, calming Robert as if he was behaving like a spoiled child with an unstable mentality.
“Yes, give me strong tea,” Robert responded. “I’m serious, Wessam. Don’t think that I’m kidding.”
“Sit down. Watch TV while I make the tea. Probably a strong one is not the right choice for you. I also have mint and anise tea.”
“It makes no difference. Give me anise. Do you think I’m sick?” Robert asked, grinning.
“No. You are healthy. You’re completely healthy,” Wessam answered, trying to convince himself, and went into the kitchen.
“Look, I’m not kidding you,” Robert said when Wessam returned with tea. “The fact is that my mother died of cancer when I was three years old and my sister was seven years old. My mother was the sole heir of an industrialist whose company produced soap, detergents and cleaners. When he was sixty-five years old, he became ill with some incurable illness. He soon realised that his daughter, with whom he had not communicated for twenty years since she had left home at the age of twenty after quarrelling with him and her stepmother, would not be able to manage his business, and, as he did not have any more children, he sold his plant. He put some money in the bank and some in stocks; he then bequeathed them to his daughter, my mother.
“When he died, my mother was already ill with cancer. She couldn’t use that money, but she was concerned about the future of her children, my sister and me, and decided to write a will. In the last months of her life, she was very religious. She thought about how to make sure her children would be honest, chaste and brought up in the tradition of the Church of England. She wrote a very complicated will and didn’t leave anything to her husband. It was written in the will that my sister should only receive money for educational needs, except a small amount for pocket money, accommodation, food, clothes, travelling twice a year – no more than two weeks each – and various petty expenses. Meanwhile my sister shouldn’t work, as my mother for some reason thought that work in our time corrupted people. If she finished her education and found a job, she would lose all the willed money, but there was a condition in which it was possible for her to complete her education without losing money – if she married a respectable Christian. If she did that then all the accumulated money of the inheritance willed to my sister would be automatically transferred to her bank account, and my sister would become a free person with the money.
“Three trustees from very conservative religious families oversee the fulfilment of the will’s conditions. Before my sister marries, they will check her suitor to decide if he matches the qualities of a true Christian and then make a verdict. However, there is a problem: my sister doesn’t want to marry. She has the same free and independent character as me, and she fell in love with a man who is not religious. They love each other and live together but they aren’t going to marry. My sister has never worked. At thirty-three years old, she doesn’t know how to earn money, get up early, go to work and stay in an office. She hasn’t worked a single day in her life. She has always studied; firstly painting, then international relations, then linguistics, and now she is studying applied mathematics. She doesn’t know what else to study. She has tried everything. She can’t get married because she loves a man who doesn’t want to marry and doesn’t want to become a faithful Christian, as written in the will; so she can’t stop studying. I think she will be studying all her life, until she breaks up with George and finds a suitable candidate. That’s why she suffers from depression and occasionally has to see a psychiatrist.”
“It’s an amazing story,” Wessam exclaimed.
“But the will for my name is different,” Robert continued. “It said that I had to study in a church school, which is exactly what I did. The second article referred to Cambridge: I only had to enter it because for some reason, my mother decided that that university would be the best for me. The third article stated that if I didn’t continue my education and I started working, I’d be obliged to marry before my thirtieth birthday, although it’s not stated what type of religion my fiancée should be before the wedding. However, it does state that the wedding should take place in an Anglican church and my fiancée would have to be baptised, if she was not already a Christian. Just as in the case of my sister, there are the same three trustees, very strict and incorruptible elderly people, watching over the execution of the will.
“That’s why I urgently need to get married. That’s why I’m anxious. Time has passed quickly; I didn’t follow it. I thought it would be solved by itself. Before Kate, I had another girlfriend; we had plans, but I broke up with her. Nothing good is working out with Kate either. She is too much of a free bird. I’ve just made her a proposal, but she started thinking, and I don’t know if or when she will agree to it.”
“I have no words, Robert,” Wessam said.
“That’s why I’m a millionaire. That’s why I can be useful to you, and I would probably be able to influence the outcome of the revolution,” Robert said solemnly. “Listen, pour me something stronger. I can’t drink something like this today.”
“Is whisky OK? Or vodka?” Wessam asked helpfully.
“No. Better make it whisky.”
Robert leisurely drank the whisky with ice and rolled his eyes, sighing with relief.
“I’m ready to invest money in the revolution, if it’s not finished before I receive my inheritance.”
“That’s good news, Robert, but I don’t know how we can use it. It seems that we have what we need, and most importantly, what we have is courage.”
“You’ll need armaments, protesters should be supported with food, and maybe you’ll need informational support. You never know what expenses you’ll need,” Robert said, in the tone of a connoisseur.
“How much can you donate?”
“About three million pounds, perhaps more; my mother left me around ten million. I’ll sacrifice money for the revolution; but in return I want you to thank me,” Robert continued.
“What do you mean, Robert?”
“When you come to power, I want you to give me land on the beach in Sharm-El-Sheikh.”
“Why do you want land?”
“I’ll build a hotel, a few hotels. I’ve decided to go into business, the type of business that is not linked with international corporations and capital, and will provide me with complete freedom to be out of this business. I’ll hire an executive manager, and I’ll live for pleasure, spreading my ideas around the world; I’ll create an international centre for the anti-globalists movement in London, where we can hold workshops and educate people. We’ll change human consciousness and we’ll bring society to the revolution. It’ll be a peaceful revolution, without victims and bloodshed. We’ll be the first, where the new system can start its birth.”
“What will be the essence of your new formation?”
“Some of my ideas you know. I’m against advertising, against consumerism and trans-national capital; but besides this, we will first change the Parliament – ordinary citizens will be elected, representatives of various professions, not related to political establishments and elements of capital, and, therefore, the lobbying problem and parliamentary bribery will be excluded immediately. Secondly, there should be equal rights for all people. All newborns should have an initial capital, which they can use for an education and their own personal development. Thirdly, all the big companies should be fragmented; they should not be allowed to operate, as they hinder free competition and prevent the development of medium and small businesses. Any businessman will be forbidden to associate with politics. Parties will also be barred from business. Large parties will be fragmented into smaller components so that people will have a choice, and large parties won’t usurp power from their hands. Banking activities will be operated by the state, as I believe that banks are predators and thieves who profit from high interest rates. In theory, the government could give loans, based on the needs, capacities and skills of people. These would be interest-free. People should be given an opportunity to evolve, open their talents and implement ideas. Talents and each person’s skills will be measured at state level and applied accordingly. Besides that, I’ll propose the closure of all stock exchanges in the country. I believe that they are the catalyst of most economic crises.
“It’s just dreams, but I wish that we had a state where everyone could receive based on their merits. Everyone would use their abilities; each one would be opened up as a person. At the moment it’s false. Our government tries to create equal opportunities for all, tries to encourage people and give them a start, and tries to develop personalities, but it’s all just for show. Almost everything is measured by money, but there is another value, which is often immeasurable; it is the usefulness of a human – what benefit he carries and is capable of bringing, how he can improve society, how he can help people, and how he can change people for better.
“I have a lot of projects, but I need time and money to develop them. I almost have the money in my pocket. Of course, I can leave it lying in investment companies, but I don’t want to support them. I don’t want to be a cog in this system, created to suppress people’s freedom and make them obedient.”
“It’s amazing, Robert. I’ve never heard anything like this in my life. Never,” Wessam said in surprise.
“I can implement some of these things in your country, when you come to power. The main thing that you would need to give me is land, a lot of land.”
“Who knows, Robert, when we will come to power, and who will come to power?”
Suddenly, Wessam was interrupted by the sound of a door slamming as Kate burst indignantly into the living room.
“Yes, you are a dreamer, Robert,” she shouted suddenly as she entered the room. “I hope your ideas won’t turn into reality.”
She paused, looked at the surprised Wessam and moved closer to Robert.
“By the way, you said that you want to find a wife but that I don’t know what I want,” she continued with a sarcastic tone. “I do know what I want. I don’t want to marry you, Robert. I don’t want to live with you.”
“No. You didn’t understand me. You misunderstood me,” Robert spoke quickly. “I meant something else.”
“Don’t lie to me. You said yourself that it doesn’t matter to you who you marry to get your millions,” she said indignantly. “Better find yourself another wife. Walk down Oxford Street, where you will find hundreds and maybe thousands of fans.”
“Wait; stop. Calm down. Relax, darling.”
“Don’t call me darling.”
“Robert, I’m sorry, but I must interrupt you,” Wessam said delicately. “I’m having a meeting in fifteen minutes with Ahmed in the restaurant; why not join us later? When you leave the building, turn right, cross the wide street, and then turn left. We’ll wait for you.”
Wessam took a hoodie and quickly walked to the door. Robert smiled and waved his hand; but after he had heard the sound of the closing door, his facial expression changed dramatically as he looked sternly at Kate.
“Who else are you for me?” he asked, when they were left together. “I love you and I want you to marry me, and be the wife of a millionaire.”
“Don’t joke like this,” she said through her tears. “Don’t joke. Now I know that you don’t love me.”
She sobbed even more, and then suddenly became quiet, clutching her hands together, trying to control her emotions.
He grinned sarcastically, scornfully crossed his legs, and, after finishing the remains of his whisky, took the bottle, standing on the coffee table, and filled his glass to the brim.
“Shall I bring you a glass?” he asked, sipping from his own one.
“Now I understand why you’re an anti-globalist. Now I understand why you always hated the rich, destroyed advertisements and participated in all these demonstrations,” she said quietly, ignoring his question. “You were just destroying something inside yourself that you wanted so much and you could not have. You wanted your mother’s money. It’s not a coincidence that you constantly changed girlfriends and often spoke badly about your mother. Once you told me that there was nothing you could thank her for. Now I understand why your relationships didn’t last long. You cherished them, you dreamed that the relationship would progress to marriage, but a fear that everything would be destroyed outweighed your feelings and hence you broke up the relationship. Now I understand your love of freedom. You were put in a box, and it made you dream constantly about what seemed to be close and at the same time unattainable. Besides, you had a religious education and strict discipline in school. You are a very unhappy man, Robert.”
“Have you given me enough psychoanalysis?” Robert asked. He stood up, fetched a glass from the kitchen, poured whisky into it and placed it in Kate’s hands. “Drink it.”
“I can understand now why we’ve been together for so long. I also had big problems in my life. That’s why I know people so well.” She grinned and drank the contents of the glass in one gulp.
“What is the cause of your problems?”
“My father left my mother when I was nine years old, and my mother became an alcoholic. After the divorce, my mother moved to England and my father stayed in France. I felt different and, indeed, I was different. I spoke with a strong French accent, despite the fact that we had two languages in our family. I spent my childhood in France; I went to kindergarten and school in Paris.
“Everyone laughed at me in the school in England; they teased me, because I was tall for my age. I was a shy teenager. I was afraid to invite anyone to my home because my mother drank constantly, shouted at me, and even beat me several times. I remember once, a teacher saw bruises on my arm and then a child social worker came to us. They wanted to deprive my mother of her parental rights and move me to another family until I came of age, but the situation was resolved when my grandmother took me to Birmingham. At that time, I often had nervous breakdowns. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t see my mother. Eventually, because of this I became depressed. Although I think my mother had the opportunity to see me, she pulled away from everyone and started drinking even more.
“My grandmother raised me very strictly. My every step was controlled. We had conflicts. I even tried to kill myself; I lay in the bathroom, ran the hot water and rapidly made a cut with a sharp knife on my left hand. I was rescued, but diagnosed as mentally unstable and my grandmother started controlling me even more. I became a teenager with complexes, and only study in Oxford changed me. I became confident there, independent, but my internal conflict didn’t disappear. I started visiting my mother, I visited my father in Paris, but I didn’t feel needed anywhere. My father had a new family; he had other children. My mother continued drinking, even though she had recently been in a rehabilitation clinic for alcoholics. I grew up with the feeling that nobody needed me.”
“What a sad story, Kate.”
“Don’t tell me that you love me,” she said dryly. “I don’t want to believe anyone in my life. Let’s agree, I will not hear your marriage proposals, but we stay together and be friends.”
Alexey was nervous. He was in despair. He felt like he was in a vacuum, that he had been put in a glass jar through which he could observe what was happening around him, but which he could not get out of. He wanted to change his mood, but a heavy feeling had chained him and it would not give him peace. It darkened his consciousness and shook him. He knew that it was jealousy, but there was something else hidden in the depths of his heart, making him even more nervous. It was fear. He was afraid that she would not return, afraid that she had betrayed him. It seemed to him that they had parted ways and they would never meet again, and the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to get out and run somewhere far away, where the lights of the city, the desert, the sea and the entire continent would disappear from his sight. He wanted to run until he ran out of energy, until he stopped experiencing this fever. He tried to distract his thoughts, but it did not work; on the contrary, it made him think about her even more. He wondered why it was happening, what he had said or done wrongly; maybe he had just not loved her enough.
His thoughts were like a spinning top and anxiety was completely devouring him, enslaving and tormenting him with slow and persistent doubts, monotonously drilling into his consciousness. He was being sucked down by them, as if in a bog; thoughts ran through his head about the meaningless of life, about how she did not love him and how he was living in a world detached from reality. Clouds thickened in his heart, and, tired of his torment, Alexey picked up the phone and dialled her number. The phone responded with long unanswered beeps. Half an hour later, he dialled again and heard the long beeps again, the sound cutting through his heart like a sharp blade.
He sat for another half an hour, lost in the depths of his thoughts; suddenly he clenched his fists and stood up. “I need something to shake me up. If I can’t solve this conflict, then I should try to forget it. I need to blow off some steam,” he thought.
Alexey walked down a narrow dusty road; passing cars were so close that it seemed their mirrors would touch him, but at the last second, as if feeling their approach, he moved automatically onto the pavement and continued on his way. He did not pay attention to the surrounding world as he had only one purpose – to walk. It didn’t matter where he walked; the important thing was to get rid of the feelings swallowing him up. Tired of dodging an endless stream of passing cars, he took a taxi and went to a bar in the city centre, where only a few days before he had confessed his love for Kate, and it had seemed to him that she belonged to him completely and forever.
The bar was noisy and crowded. The smell of cigarettes, fused with the aroma of alcohol, sharply tickled his nostrils and calmed his nerves for some time. He looked around; people were sitting, drunk and contented, and chattering with natural facial expressions, as if unrest and the outbreak of revolution had taken place in another country and they had simply come here after work to relax and have a good time.
Alexey joined a big table and, after ordering a cognac, asked his neighbour for a cigarette. The neighbour’s companions offered him a few packs to choose from – strong, light with menthol – and a cigar. He chose the cigar, hoping it would invigorate him and give him strength. After inhaling the cigar smoke and sipping cognac from a small bottle, he felt a surge of fresh energy, which washed through him and decreased his stress. After the second bottle, he was smiling and discussing the political situation with his neighbours.
They had not been participating in the revolution but had been watching the events like a football match. For them, the confrontation between the parties involved was like the clash of two teams. They had even made a bet: two of them had bet on a victory for the revolution while one had bet against it, sure that the revolution would be defeated. They were looking for participants and invited Alexey to join their lottery; the winnings were already more than a thousand dollars.
All of them were around the same age as Alexey, young and full of energy, but some of their ways were more typical of older people, treating life with detachment and cynicism, which had aged them, extinguishing the fire of youth. They were the children of wealthy parents and their career paths had been forged through the help of their parents’ friends. They did not understand the essence of the revolution, as the lives of ordinary people were not real to them, but they wanted to see the outcome for fun.
They had accidentally come to this simple bar. After arriving in the city centre, they had decided to see the situation with their own eyes, but had been afraid to go beyond the area of Talaat Haarb Square and had turned into one of the nearby streets where they had found this unremarkable bar, known only among local revellers, drunkards and bored foreigners.
“And what do you think? Which of us will win? When will Mubarak resign?” a tall man dressed in an elegant black suit, the most verbal of them, asked a bearded old man sitting nearby.
“I don’t believe in the revolution, but the regime will lose, and with it men like you will have no place in the new country,” the man replied with a scornful smile on his face, sipping from a bottle of brandy and washing it down with beer.
It was obvious that he was a wise man who had lived a long life; his grey beard, which hung in disorderly strands, and his blue eyes, which shone with depth and clarity, showed his wisdom and great life experience. His slovenly appearance, bold and defiant voice, and wild gaze, which seemed to penetrate into hearts, scared people away. Many people avoided him as they thought that this man saw through them like a magician baring and seeing their inner essence. Sometimes it was enough for their eyes to meet to make their interest in communicating with this man disappear, as they were afraid to know the real sides of themselves.
This is what happened to the tall young man who had asked the question. He was surprised, not by what the old man said, but by his look. As his eyes met the old man’s, he was confused at first, then lowered his gaze, at the same time stretching his neck like a giraffe, and – pretending that he no longer wanted to talk to the old man – abruptly turned to his friend.
“Listen. You’ve become so scared that you don’t want to hear the truth. No one wants to hear the truth about it. The main thing is that people are afraid of themselves. If we were honest with ourselves in the first place, we wouldn’t have revolutions and regimes; we wouldn’t have any betrayal and lies,” continued the old man.
The tall young man smiled indifferently and looked coldly at the old man.
Alexey tensed; he realised that he had heard something important – something about which he had thought. He was drawn to the old man and wanted to talk to him; he saw a guru in front of him, a teacher, who saw through people as if through glass.
“Listen, do you really think that the revolution doesn’t make sense?” Alexey asked, moving his chair closer.
“Yes,” the old man said, and pondered. “I don’t believe in the revolution. Revolution is not an exit. It can do nothing to help people unless they change themselves. All this is external and artificial. People should seek happiness on their own, and nobody from the outside can make them happy. We create destiny; it does not create us.
“I’ve lived a long life and I know that everyone deserves his own fate. Each of us builds his life with thoughts, dreams and actions. Everyone receives what he deserves according to his merits and achievements, because everything in our lives is fair, and the law of energy conservation also exists in the spiritual plane, and is the same in the universe. It’s very simple: you harvest what you have sown, and if you don’t have time to take it now, then later, sometimes even after life, it will ripen and you’ll be enriched – or become poor. It will happen at the right time, as each fruit has its own ripening period, the conditions of which are created by each person. In fact, life is a fruit that we should grow and gather to go further with it and receive according to our merits.
“It’s the same with the nation. Every nation and every country deserves its own fate. After all, what is a nation but a whole lot of the people living in a country? People have feelings and passions; they think, dream and create. They create their own reality every day, from one year to the next. This reality is woven from different threads of the different actions of people, like a multicoloured carpet, and only they are responsible for what they have created.
“That’s why I believe that the revolution will not solve people’s problems. If many people are unfair to each other, they cheat, are insincere and don’t want freedom, then their lives won’t be changed for the better, even with a revolution. They don’t want to change themselves – their essence – but they think that by changing the external decoration, they will change their fate. No, it doesn’t work like this. We only harvest the crop we have sown.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Alexey asked cautiously.
“Please, go on.”
“Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of headaches. They occur spontaneously, strike me suddenly and then disappear. What’s wrong with me?”
“This is energy,” the old man answered. “You can feel the subtle plane. Everyone feels it, but not everyone is aware of it. It takes long spiritual practice in order to feel the flows of energy. Your consciousness is only a radio and you tune it to the required wavelength, but if your receiver is more advanced, it’s more sensitive and perceives all disturbances and noise that appear in the air. Believe me, there is too much noise and it is being created by the thoughts of other people, sometimes even by spirits. The air is filled with noise and with harmonic music, but the noise is designed to disrupt this music and create disturbances.
“There are several reasons why you are more susceptible to the noise here. Firstly, it’s this place. Every place has its own potential and essence and each one opens a certain part of the human soul and develops certain abilities. In one place, a person becomes more materialistic, and in another, more spiritual. In some countries, you can develop aesthetic or intellectual abilities; it depends on the intersection of nature of the person with the essence of a place. As is true for humans, every place has its own character, its own history, its own mission and its own destiny, and when your essence overlaps the essence of a place, some aspects of your personality are multiplied, wherever they intersect with the sides of the place. It’s like photographic developer, a chemical solution – the place displays those features that were not previously visible, but had preconditions to be manifested. Or it’s like the rays of the sun, which scatter darkness at a certain angle and reveal objects that were previously hidden in you, but which now shine brightly in their glorious colours.”
The old man paused again. He looked at Alexey intensely and Alexey felt fear. It seemed to him that the old man was reaching into his heart and mind to read his thoughts and feelings. A nervous shiver swept through him; he felt cold, his state of alcoholic intoxication vanished suddenly, his mind cleared and the abrupt mood swing confused him. The old man took Alexey’s hand. His hand was soft and warm, full of love and compassion, and Alexey suddenly felt calm and at ease. He felt a strong flow of energy from a higher plane, full of harmony and perfection.
“Don’t be afraid,” the old man said. “It’s not worth it.” He closed his eyes and concentrated, looking somewhere inside himself or into a different dimension. Then he opened his eyes, smiled and released Alexey’s hand.
“Another reason is love. You are in love, young man. I see love in your eyes. Love opens the heart, making it more susceptible. It opens up like a flower waiting for a loved one to gather nectar from it. She is like a wonderful butterfly, coming to you to share her energy with you, renewing and nurturing your own, and allowing your flower to grow further. You expect her and know that she is yours, but one day she doesn’t fly to you and forgets about you. You need her, but she does not come to you. You wait for her and open your petals even more in the hope that she’ll fly to you soon and nourish you. The flower of love swells, it needs food, so then your heart opens in search of love and picks up external energy. Therefore, the negative energy of any person is reflected as pain in your body.
“We are unaware and unable to understand what enormous strength the energy of human thoughts has; it’s so powerful, only a few realise it. After all, this world is our thoughts, this world is our energy, and we build and destroy it every day. Sometimes, even without doing anything, we save or destroy a person. We can sympathise through our thoughts and throw a lifebuoy in the distance, which will appear close to the person and help them in the form of relevant circumstances and events, because that is how energy works. The question is whether we can believe, and understand that thin threads, like electrical wires through a common generator, link us all. If we knew the complete strength of our thoughts and how they interacted, then we could build a paradise here.”
“I can keep talking like this for a long time, young man. Don’t listen to me. Listen to your heart. Indeed, the heart is the only compass that can show you the right way.”
Alexey was so amazed that he could not utter a word. The words of the old man echoed in his heart and, as a remedy, took away all his doubts, sadness and negativity.
“Listen, you should let it go. Sometimes in life, you need to let go of a person, memories, love, or objects. One day you will have to let your life go. Otherwise, there won’t be renewal and movement, and only suffering will follow. Just swim and receive an endless stream from the common generator. Believe me; every one of us is initially blessed. Everyone; but only a few people know about it. We can get everything – and we do have everything – and our all is ourselves, because everyone will ripen his own harvest. Grow your crops and live within a stream of clean energy. Think about it.
“I have to go, but we’ll meet again. However, I don’t know in which world,” he said, shaking Alexey’s hand before he walked slowly out of the bar and disappeared into the street.
Alexey woke in the afternoon. His head ached, his heart was beating fast and his thoughts were rushed, like hunted hares being followed by greyhounds. He knew it was nerves, but maybe wine could calm him. Two glasses of red wine helped him a little, calming his worries, but woke his longing for her.
He started walking aimlessly through the streets, and on the way he phoned everyone he knew in the area, inviting them to meet with him. He wanted to talk with someone to distract himself from thinking about her, but everyone was busy; everyone was occupied with creating a revolution.
Some promised to call back later, some asked him to call back the next day or after a few days, but no one wanted to see him immediately or at all today. He was a stranger to them, and it made him sad.
“I’m tired of Cairo; I’m tired of this big city, of its people, its noise, the shouting and the bustle of the streets. I’m tired of sleepless nights, of strange dynamics and of being alone. I’m fed up that I have not met her today and no one I know is here,” Alexey thought.
He went to the café and ordered mint tea, which was soon brought to him. He picked up the hot glass. A sugar bowl was on the table, containing some yellow pieces of sugar, stained from the use of previous visitors of the café.
“There’s something in it,” he thought. “When I look at the used sugar bowl with its yellow crystals, I feel a sense of connection. I feel that another person used it before me, and no matter if they were young or old, Christian or Muslim, foreigner or Egyptian, I just know that someone has used it, and I am in some way connected with all these people by some invisible thread. I understand that I am not alone, and that someone sat here just like me, with a glass, thinking about something, or maybe talking to their friends or their loved one, fusing the conversation with hot tea.”
People were sitting around; some were self-absorbed, some looked at the street, some talked on the phone or to a neighbour, and some smoked shisha. Time passed so slowly, like sand in the desert stroked by the lazy wind. Only the flies were faster than time. They swarmed, looking for a tasty place, and landed on the sugar bowl, then on the table and then on him.
He returned to the apartment, which seemed empty and huge. Everything was the same, the same objects and the same interior, but it lacked comfort and it lacked her.
“I want to go home, but I don’t know where my home is. Home is where you are understood and loved. Where am I loved? Sometimes I want to run away from the place where I live, but I can’t, because I’m tied by bonds to this place. Nothing pleases me, because my place is not here. She was the only one who kept me here as an anchor. Now I’m left without an anchor, and the ship has to sail further, deep into the sea, where there is space and freedom.
“My place is definitely not here, in this noise and cry of revolution, in the explosion of emotions and consciousness, in the rush to find freedom. That old man was right – everyone builds his own destiny, and everyone gets what he deserves. It’s impossible to come to a place that doesn’t exist on the map. Freedom is inside a person; it has to be understood and then appreciated and cherished. We can fight for it, but we are only starting a fight in ourselves.”
He was waiting for her, hoping that the phone would ring at any moment or soon a knock at the door would be heard. He could feel her nearby and, after walking to the balcony, he saw her figure downstairs, emerging from nowhere as if his longing for her had materialised her. It was a woman passing by on the street, dressed in European clothes. His heart began to beat faster and his breathing became shallow, as if he was running. Alexey had already imagined how the door would open, and she would look at him with guilty eyes, hug him, kissing his lips hungrily and devotedly. He would resist, showing coldness and trying to keep his distance, but suddenly, feeling his heart melt and anger vanish, he would firmly embrace her and kiss her face, hair and neck; but the woman on the street was not Kate, and he realised that he was wrong, which made him even more angry and self-absorbed.
“Perhaps love is a disease,” he thought. “People fall in love, get used to each other’s presence like a drug, and every day they need a dose of their loved one. They forget that once they were happy without this great love. They could live without this drug, but after finding it they imagine that this drug is the most powerful and they become addicted to it,” Alexey thought.
“They turned off the electricity again,” he shouted angrily to himself, shuddering as darkness enveloped the whole house.
The electricity had been switched off almost every day over the past few days. He looked up at the stars, which were the only light in the area. There were less of them by the sea, and they were not as large, but their shine attracted him.
“Maybe the truth is out there,” Alexey thought, finishing a glass of wine. “And the stars shine for us like books in which the meaning of the whole universe and human life is written.”
Soon the electricity was on again; children shouted with joy, some people applauded and the happy residents plunged back into the routine of city life. A glow flushed into the streetlights, shop signs and the windows of houses, and the stars seemed no longer so bright and visible, dissolving in the lights of the city.
This day was special – bright and festive, promising, reassuring and inviting. It was the first day of February and the first day of the last month of winter. Although winter was not felt here, and the sun shone with confidence, not hot but not hiding behind clouds as it would be in England, Kate felt that it was a decisive day. Everything was full of colours and emotions, everything shimmered and played, beckoning and reminding her that life was beautiful and unique. She felt light and happy and she began to sing.
“What are you singing?” Robert asked her as they were travelling in the car, encountering roadblocks along the way.
“We are the Champions, by Queen,” she said, and started singing louder.
“We are the champions, my friend,
And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.”
Robert put his arm around her and joined her in singing:
“We are the champions… We are the champions.
No time for losers, ’cause we are the champions – of the world!”
They could not remember the other words, so repeated the chorus again. After finishing the song, Robert kissed Kate on the cheek. She smiled and looked out of the window.
On their way, Wessam’s friend, Magda, who had decided to take part in the demonstration for the first time, joined them near Ramses Station. In order to fit everybody into the car, Karim had to free up the front seat for Magda and move to the back seat, where Kate sat on Robert’s knee. It was so packed on the back seat that Kate accidentally opened the door on the way and almost fell out of the car onto the street, but Robert reacted quickly and closed it again.
The square was completely full and resembled the sea before a storm, irritated and worrisome, ready to splash huge waves onto the shore, and spin everything out into its vastness that tried to resist or appear on its surface. When people shouted slogans, waved placards and supported speakers, it seemed the houses surrounding the square would explode and crumble from the power of the resounding echoes.
Tahrir exulted and was swept with euphoria. People thought that victory was close, and they were excited. Some danced, some sang, some waved flags or clapped their hands, chanting in unison calls for the president to resign. A fun and festive atmosphere reigned and could be seen in joyful eyes and sincere smiles; people felt like heroes.
They walked through the fence and past a military blockade. Tanks stood nearby, where soldiers sat, watching the ongoing events in silence.
“Just look what’s happening. We are millions, and we won’t leave until he leaves,” Ahmed said, looking around.
“Yes, it’s a march of millions. Today, even those who doubted, and didn’t know if they should take part in the protests, have joined us,” Wessam said.
“I’m seeing this type of thing for the first time. It is a festival for the whole nation. Finally, we move freely in the streets and express our own views,” Magda said with delight.
She had missed the beginning of the revolution, but had succumbed to the persuasions of Wessam, who she respected and with who she was in love.
A small group of people was ahead of them. Wessam approached them and began to chant slogans with the others. Karim started dancing, waving his arms vigorously. A hooting pealed – it was Magda uttering the sounds, trying to play along with the others. Kate laughed and clapped her hands; she was infected with the joy and jubilation surrounding her. It seemed to all of them that their difficulties and troubles were in the past, and soon they would have triumph.
They arrived home late that night, tired but happy. Wessam wanted to order dinner by phone for everybody, but the delivery service was not working in any restaurant. Karim proposed to buy his favourite national food in the street café, located nearby, but Ahmed and Wessam refused. They knew what kind of food it would be, and laughed after hearing Robert’s request for the departing Karim to buy him some food. Soon Wessam found the phone number of a friend who was the owner of a small restaurant, and after several minutes of persuasion, the man agreed to cook and deliver two large pizzas.
“You’ll have to eat Italian cuisine today, but maybe it’s for the best,” Ahmed said to Robert, when the pizza was delivered.
At the same time, Karim came back with his food, and asked Robert to share his dinner with him in the kitchen.
“It’s so tasty,” Karim said.
“What is that?” Robert asked.
Robert reached out with a fork, but Karim stopped him.
“Eat with your hands. Take the bread and grab some meat and sauce with it.”
Robert took a piece of bread, dipped it into the plate and took a few pieces of meat.
“It’s delicious,” Robert said chewing.
“These are bull’s balls,” Karim exclaimed happily.
“Sorry?” Robert asked, hoping he had not heard correctly.
“Bull’s balls,” Karim repeated.
Robert immediately spat the unswallowed pieces back onto the plate and looked angrily at Karim.
“Why didn’t you say so before?”
“I thought you’d like it.”
Robert laughed, carefully wiped his mouth with his hands and looked around the table, where various dishes of meat, bread, rice, tahini and tomato salad with cucumbers were spread out on the table.
“What is that?” Robert asked, pointing at another plate of meat.
“Beef heart, liver and bones with fat,” Karim said, picking up a beef bone, covered with fat. He cut a large piece of fat off it, put it on a plate and moved it closer to Robert.
“I want a drink of whisky,” Robert said.
“I need to drink after eating that. I can’t eat like this,” Robert said, and took a bottle of whisky from the cupboard.
He did not want to eat this unusual food; it looked revolting. On the other hand, he felt it would be impolite to refuse it. Robert was trying to establish friendly relations with Karim; he was still offended that Karim had spoken out against foreigners’ participation in the protests.
After eating a piece of fat, he immediately felt sick and a sudden urge to vomit rocked his stomach. He drank his whisky in one gulp; this stopped him from vomiting and gave him the courage to swallow the food.
“Eat some heart as well,” Karim said in a commanding tone.
After eating the fat, the heart was more edible. It was soft, but thoughts that it had been beating in the chest of the living creature not long ago made him uncomfortable. Robert was not sensitive about food; he just was not used to eating food such as this.
Robert felt that by joining him in eating this food, Karim was trying to accept him. Before, when Karim had talked to Robert, there was distance in his behaviour. Now, after eating food together, Karim opened up to Robert and started telling him how to eat correctly.
“Every dish should be eaten with bread. You grab food with the bread and put it in your mouth,” Karim said, showing Robert how to eat the liver, fried with vegetables. “The bread absorbs fat so it helps to reduce the burden on the stomach. Besides, bread helps you to become full quickly.”
“Do you eat with your hands? I have an Indian friend in London. He taught me how to eat with my hands. It’s tasty. You feel the food. You have contact with it before swallowing.”
“No, I can’t eat with my hands,” Karim said, laughing. “I should try. Teach me.”
“Look,” Robert said, and putting rice in his bowl, immersed his fingers, and then scooped a small handful of rice with them and put it in his mouth.
“What are you doing here?” Kate asked them as she walked in.
“We’re eating rice, heart, liver and bull’s balls,” Robert answered.
“Karim is an aesthete,” grinned Ali, who had also walked into the kitchen. “He knows a lot about bulls’ balls.”
Ali had just come to visit Wessam after returning from a pro-government demonstration. An executive director of the bank had asked him to go with other bank employees. He did not want to go and would have preferred to relax, because banks and most businesses were closed these days. Ali envied the guys, as they were free and could choose how to manage their own time. Sometimes he thought of joining the protesters to challenge himself. He promised his friends that soon he would be among the protesters, but then when it came to real action, he immediately refused.
“You’d better keep silent, you banker and fan of sushi and kimchi,” Karim parried.
“Yes, I love oriental cuisine. It’s more flavoursome,” Ali said.
Ali smiled and walked out of the kitchen.
Soon other guests came: two friends of Magda, both pleasant looking girls. Belal came too, and approached Robert, who introduced him to Kate and left him talking with her for half an hour.
“Come here, my friends. Our current president will give a speech now,” Wessam shouted.
The President appeared serious and sad on the screen – he seemed to be concerned about the fate of the people and was trying to finish the conflict. Al-Jazeera translated his speech into English, but to get a better understanding of his emotions, Wessam turned on the radio station on his mobile phone, which was broadcasting the President’s message without translation.
The speech ended and they switched channels. Touching music was playing on national TV, followed by a documentary where the President and his wife were talking emotionally.
Kate looked around. Everyone was waiting, wondering who would be the first to express their opinions.
“I’m leaving the game. I won’t take part in the demonstrations,” Belal said, breaking the silence.
“Why? What’s happened?” Ahmed asked him.
“He’s impressed by Mubarak’s speech,” Karim grinned.
“Yes, I agree with him. I don’t think that the man who has ruled this country for thirty years would betray us. Whoever he has been, whatever mistakes he’s made, he has changed and now he is trying to improve the situation, and trying to bring the people together,” Belal said.
“Did you see how sincerely he was talking? He loves this country and its people,” Ali decided to play along with him.
Ahmed looked suspiciously at Ali. He knew that the man was glad to see a split in their ranks; Ali consistently raised arguments in favour of keeping the regime.
“He loves Egypt, and we shouldn’t blame him. He was right when he said that history will assess him. He wants to save the country from chaos. We have achieved our goal – he won’t run in the next presidential elections. He wants a peaceful solution to the conflict and a smooth transition of his power. He has become wiser,” Belal continued.
“Yes, we have had too much violence,” Magda supported him.
“But it’s all for liberation from the regime,” Kate exclaimed in surprise. She could not understand how people could change their position in fifteen minutes.
“Don’t you think we have paid a high price for this? So many have been killed. There is looting in the city. People are afraid to go out. The situation has become worse and worse,” Ali said.
“Who started the violence? Who shot at civilians? Who dissolved the police and freed criminals?” Karim asked.
“He will never leave. All these protests won’t have a result,” Magda said. “People will be disappointed in the protests after a week or two and the unrest will cease, but even if he forfeits his power, who will be president instead of him?”
“We’ll have a presidential election. We’ll elect a more deserving president and he’ll be the best president. Our people deserve a better fate,” Wessam said.
“You are too naïve. Do you believe him? He is playing with you. He will never start negotiations with the opposition. He said that he would not participate in the elections in autumn. Is that guaranteed? Is there any guarantee that somebody else from his circle will not come to take his place? I believe that we must continue. We should go out to the streets and demand his final resignation. We have suffered enough. We can’t stop halfway. Everything will be solved soon, but now you want to stop. You are weak,” Karim said with a contemptuous intonation in his voice.
“Yes, Karim is right. We must get rid of him. He is cunning, like a snake, and he manipulates our minds,” Ahmed interrupted the conversation.
“I won’t participate for a while, anyway. I think the outcome doesn’t depend on me alone,” Belal continued, insisting on his position.
They discussed the president’s speech for some time, and then decided that, despite a split in their ranks, most of them would go to Tahrir tomorrow for the next demonstration.
It was after midnight. The guests had just left; Wessam had gone to sleep but Kate stayed up drinking whisky and listening to Robert criticising Belal’s inconstancy and calling for more action. The phone rang, interrupting the discourse that had already exhausted Kate.
“It’s Jamila. She is calling very late; something must have happened,” Kate said, before answering her mobile.
“Hi. How are you?
“Was he released?
“He escaped from the prison… Is he with you now? How amazing!
“Said escaped from prison,” she said to Robert, moving the phone away from her ear.
“Who?” Robert asked.
“Said – the guy who was with us on New Year’s Eve. He was taken to prison and we met him by chance in the police station.”
She continued talking to Jamila, and in a few seconds, her joyful facial expression suddenly changed to sadness.
“How come? Really?” Kate was almost crying. “I can’t believe it. OK. Take care of yourself. Bye.” She hung up the phone and thought for some time.
“What happened?” Robert asked.
“Sherif has been killed. He was wounded in the head and we followed him to his relatives, but he went outside again and got shot. I thought he was all right. I didn’t expect this,” she slowly repeated the last words, as if uttering them helped her to believe what she had heard.
At first, Kate tried to hide the tears, covering her face with her hands, but then she was no longer able to control herself and completely surrendered to her feelings.
“Calm down. Calm down.”
“Forgive me, Robbie. Forgive me for everything.”
“For what? I don’t understand you, Kate. What’s your fault? What’s going on with you?”
“I’m scared. Something is going to happen.”
“Come here. Calm down,” he said, hugging her. She was shivering as if she had a fever.
“Are you so upset by Sherif’s death?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” she began to sob again.
“Yes, you’re upset about his death. He was a good man. Calm down. Get a hold of yourself. I’m with you, darling, whatever happens. Listen, he sacrificed himself for a good cause, because he offered himself for the sake of revolution. He died for the people. Our descendants will remember him.”
“I don’t know who will remember. Who will remember us?”
Robert did not say anything; he hugged her tighter and kissed her cheek, which was wet from her tears.
“Why is there so much injustice in the world? Why is there so much deception, anger and violence?” Kate continued asking questions desperately.
“I think people create injustice themselves. It originates from selfishness and greed,” Robert said. “We are too self-absorbed; we are too individualistic to think about others. The system wants us to be like this, it wants us to be separated. It plays humanity, but in fact, it’s anti-human. It sets us against each other; it proclaims competition as a virtue and a necessary requisite of the modern capitalism, but in reality, when someone wins, another loses. When someone enjoys luxury, another is destined to be impoverished. It’s the source of all problems. It’s our ideology and our consumerist attitude to the world. We pretend to be ethical and polite, but the way we treat our planet, ruthlessly and insatiably, the way we treat our lives – it’s just sheer consumerism; we consume and use. It sits so deeply in the matrix of the modern system that it can’t be uprooted quickly. There is no one else to blame. We have created it, because it’s easier to live this way.
“But you shouldn’t be scared while I’m with you. We are strong and we’ll win this fight. We have just got to believe in ourselves and never succumb to fear. Let them fear us. Truth is on our side.”
Kate looked at him intensely. She suddenly realised that there was nothing to be afraid of with Robert. She felt protected and it gave her confidence, solid as a rock.
“Let’s go to sleep, darling. I’ll protect you all night from your nightmares. There is nothing to be afraid of,” Robert said as if confirming her thoughts.
“Why? Why can’t I forget her and cast these feelings from my heart? They are like thorns, hard and deep inside, reminding me of their presence with acute pain. Why doesn’t my affection disappear? Why is it that the further she moves away, the more I want to be near her? I seek her, trying to rebuild our relationship, but it’s all useless; there’s nothing I can do. Even so, somewhere inside, I comfort myself with hope; I believe that she will return.”
He stood up from the couch and felt a tremor coming from deep in his heart, which nervously pounded and halted his thinking. It tortured and kicked out at him, as if calling for action.
He went to the fridge, took out the last bottle of cool rosé, removed the cork and started to drink insatiably straight from the bottle. A warm glow swept over his entire body, he relaxed a little and started to gather his thoughts.
“How can I go on living?” he asked himself. “What should I do with my life? Why can’t I live without her?”
Questions arose and disturbed him. They flashed before his eyes and passed without answer.
“Time: only time will put everything in its place and cure me.”
He suddenly decided that he had to delete all his photographs of her, that it would be a small step towards erasing her from his memory. He grabbed his laptop, opened a folder containing photographs, began to browse through them and then deleted them one by one. He stopped at photos of her standing on the beach, smiling and looking pretty, wearing a white blouse and pleated skirt. He remembered that time, which seemed both recent and, at the same time, long ago. At that time, he had been happily in love; he had believed in her and been full of dreams and full of life. He zoomed in on the photo and gazed at her face, which radiated peace and joy, with her heartfelt smile and her eyes squinting against the bright sunshine.
“No, I can’t forget her. I love her and I will always love her,” he said, slamming his fist on the table.
The table shook, and a slender series of small cracks appeared on the varnished surface. His hand ached and trembled from severe pain.
“Physical pain can’t compare with emotional pain. Physical pain can make you suffer, but it will never wear you down like a pain in your heart, a pain that breaks you down into pieces the size of atoms and torments you persistently, whining and bleeding,” he thought, looking at his hand. “Physical pain can be overcome; you can accept physical pain or numb it with medication. No matter how strong the physical pain, you always know that it will pass – sooner or later, it will come to an end. Emotional pain works the other way round. It is here and now, and seems like it will always be here. It hits you in the heart, it makes you shudder, commit rash acts, drink and take drugs, end your life. It sends your mind in circles, like a prisoner in a cell, making you bang your head against a wall, a barrier built against your own private world of solitude and incomprehension. It can turn your life into hell, burn it completely, and leave everything incinerated.”
Suddenly his heart jumped as he heard the sound of a key in the door. He looked out to the hallway and saw a young Egyptian woman. Surprised, he fixed his gaze on her. Something about her figure was familiar. For a few seconds he wasn’t sure, but then he suddenly realised; it was her standing before him. Kate was dressed in a long, lilac Egyptian dress with wide sleeves. Her head was covered by a dark blue hijab, carefully wrapped around her neck and embroidered with gold patterns.
“Welcome back,” he said and stretched his hands forward to hug her.
She greeted him coldly and walked straight past him, into the bedroom. Alexey followed her. She spent a minute pacing up and down the room, as if wondering which clothes she should take with her, and then quickly started to pack a suitcase with a distant look on her face.
“Are you leaving me?” he asked.
“Yes, I am. I decided that we should separate. I’m sorry, but I can’t be with you anymore. I’m tired of your limitations,” she said, monotonously.
“What a surprise,” he uttered reproachfully, deliberately dragging out the last word. “You’ve spent your time with your ex-lover, while I was left restless, and didn’t know when you would come back, or if you would come back at all; but now you’re coming back to tell me that you’ve finally decided to break up with me.”
“He’s just an old, close friend,” she said, raising her head. “I wanted to call you, but the network in this country is unpredictable, and it was dangerous to go all the way across the city. Even now as we drove here, a lot of the streets were blocked by checkpoints and we were asked for documents several times.”
“How come? Did something happen again?” he asked, with a naïve expression on his face.
“Don’t you know that everyone protects their own houses now? It’s to prevent looting. People protect as much they can. They’ve made residents’ groups and keep shifts.”
“No, I didn’t even know about that. Although – hang on – I saw some guys blocking the road leading up to our house. I passed them a few times but they didn’t ask for any documents.”
“Because you’re a foreigner and look like a foreigner. You couldn’t be a robber.”
She loaded her things into the red suitcase and, taking it by the handle, pulled it into the hall.
“It’s chaos in the city. It’s been like that for a few days. I’m amazed that you didn’t know about it,” she said, sitting on the couch. “You seem to live on another planet.”
It sounded like she was blaming him for not keeping up to date with the country’s situation, for being indifferent to what was happening.
“I didn’t care about anything. I was just waiting for you,” he said, trying to justify himself and evoke compassion in her.
“Well, here I am. Although just to leave you, finally,” she said in a firm voice.
“Please don’t go. Don’t leave me, I’m begging you. These last few days without you were hell; I can’t live without you. You’re the love of my life.”
“The love of your life? Are you sure?” she asked sarcastically. “We’ve only known each other for little more than a month.”
“Is that not enough to know that you love someone like you’ve never loved anyone before?”
“Is it true?” she asked.
“Yes, it is,” he replied.
She slowly looked around the room, collecting her thoughts. It seemed to Alexey that she had repented and would now declare her love for him and ask for forgiveness. He braced himself and was ready to be magnanimous in his forgiveness.
“Pour me a drink. Have you got anything?” she asked, suddenly and impatiently.
“Yes, we have,” he said, taking an open bottle of wine from the floor by the sofa, standing out against a few other empty bottles.
He poured a full glass and gave it to her, his hands trembling, and spilled some wine on the carpet. As she took the glass, Alexey quickly glanced into her eyes and felt that he had struck a chord with her, in her heart.
She sat on the couch and sipped the wine, lost in thought and anticipating his next move. She wished he would ask for forgiveness, beg her to stay and keep telling her that he loved her. She didn’t believe anyone and knew that she loved neither him nor Robert, but she wanted to be flattered and made to feel loved. To her, Robert’s love was somewhat fickle, scarcely expressed and barely perceptible. He gave her lots of compliments, but she could sense insincerity in his voice – he was playing a game. She was further convinced that his feelings were not strong because of his confession that he only needed her to ensure that he received his inheritance.
She looked at Alexey and tried to listen for echoes of past feelings for him, but suddenly realised that she had nothing to recall.
“Kate, I really love you,” Alexey said, taking her hand.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yes, I love you with all my heart,” he said quickly, and started kissing her hand.
She was going to take her hand away but she wanted to feel loved and needed. She wanted to see that gleam and adoration in his eyes.
Kate knew that she was hungry for affection. She had not had enough love in her life. Her parents had not loved her; they had left her, forming a permanent need to be loved within her. It ached and aggravated her internally, like a wound; one moment it was healed, the next moment inflamed. She sought love desperately and uncontrollably. She couldn’t handle herself, constantly feeling love’s absence. It had caused her to fall into depression, as she could not understand life and sometimes even hated it. It seemed to her that the world was simply unfair, had undeservedly deprived her of the thing she wanted most.
“What about you? Do you love me?” he asked.
Kate did not know how to answer. She felt sad and, at the same time, sorry for him, but most of all, she felt sorry for herself. She felt that nobody had ever loved her this much before, thus the mask that she had been hiding behind suddenly melted, and tears appeared in her eyes. She waved her hand and opened her mouth to say something, but unexpectedly rose to her feet.
“I have to go, I’m sorry. I decided it would better to break up.” She walked quickly to the front door and opened it.
“Goodbye. Good luck to you!’” she shouted, closing the door behind her.
She was gone. The apartment was silent, and her words still echoed in his head. He could not get past them. He wanted to rush after her, fall on his knees before her, hug her legs and beg her to come back. He played the scenario through in his mind several times, but pride and resentment held him back. There was a fog in his head. It seemed that he had lost something very important, even essential, some significant part of himself that had recently belonged to him but was no longer his.
He rushed to the refrigerator but the wine was finished. There was some whisky left at the bottom of the bottle and he immediately drank the remains. His heart was pounding and his nerves would not subside. He grabbed the cigarettes. He inhaled and exhaled the heavy smoke. He recalled those few days without her, which had seemed to him like a living hell. He recalled the time they had spent together by the sea, but fragments of words from their last conversation popped into his head, as if rubbing out that bright-haloed romance that had accompanied his love. Before him arose the memory of her disdainful look and decisive steps towards the door. He was offended that he had been so insidiously and cruelly abandoned, humiliated and trampled upon, as if he had committed some crime or offence. He loved her with all his heart. He wished only good things for her. He worried about her. “It’s only natural to take care of a loved one, to try to protect them from danger,” he thought, and stubbed out a third cigarette in the ashtray. A small ember broke away from the extinguished cigarette and continued to slowly burn, not hastening to die out.
He sat for a while, staring blankly at the shimmering of the bohemian crystal chandelier in random rays of sunlight, and then suddenly he stood up. His eyes flashed brightly and the corners of his mouth rose. He stuck out his chin, pursed his lips and made an imperious facial expression.
“No, I will not let her go as easily as that,” he thought, putting on his trainers, throwing on his jacket and running out of the apartment.
He left the house and saw three men guarding the road’s entrance; the road itself was blocked by two monolithic slabs.
“Have you seen a foreigner here? She was wearing an Egyptian dress and a scarf on her head.”
“Yes, we saw her. She got into a car,” the same guy replied.
“Where did they go?”
“Along the Corniche and towards the city centre.” He lit a cigarette.
Alexey thanked them and went to the road.
“They most likely went to Tahrir. I’ll find her there,” he thought, and walked along the roadside.
After walking along the Corniche for ten minutes and realising just how far the city centre was, he decided to take a taxi. There were a few cars on the street but not a single taxi. He waved cars down, hoping that some driver might stop and give him a lift. Only the occasional truck passed, but then a tuk-tuk – a small, covered, three-wheeled scooter – suddenly slowed down beside him, and the driver, still just a boy, waved him over. Alexey leaned forward, climbed into the back seat and they drove off.
As the tuk-tuk’s engine let off a buzzing noise, the boy turned on some festive and melodic music with dragging howls and a synthesizer shifting over different chords, and the wind whistled as if in time with the music. Alexey felt that he was just a tourist who had come to enjoy himself and see the country. For a while, he forgot about parting with Kate, about the heaviness of his heart and the dizzy intoxication, and looked in astonishment at the streets and the Nile’s edge, which glistened in streams of sunlight.
They passed several tanks and military checkpoints, and saw a small group of people carrying posters portraying the president. They crossed the Ring Road, passed by the aqueduct, and drove head first into the network of small streets and alleys, which were unusually empty and abandoned. Occasionally, obstacles put in place by residents blocked their path, but the tuk-tuk driver skilfully wove around them, and smiling onlookers were surprised to see a foreigner travelling at such a dangerous time in such a vehicle.
The tuk-tuk stopped just before Tahrir, somewhere near Abdeen Palace, and the boy shook his head.
“No! No!” he shouted several times, indicating with his hand that he wouldn’t go any further. “Stop.”
Alexey jumped out onto the pavement, gave the boy twenty pounds and, looking around, went down the street.
There were soldiers positioned by the entrance to Tahrir. They had set up a small blockade and were carefully examining people and checking protesters’ passports. Alexey was in such a hurry that he had forgotten to put his passport in his pocket. He tried to pass through without a passport but they blocked him. As soon as he took a step back, he was approached by a young girl holding an electric kettle.
“Can’t you get inside?” she asked Alexey in English.
“I have forgotten my passport,” he replied.
“Come with me. I will take you through,” she said, and gave the soldier at the checkpoint an explanation.
The soldier looked down at Alexey, smiled at the girl, said something to her in Arabic and then waved Alexey through.
“What did you tell them?” Alexey asked.
“I told him that you are my old friend and left your passport at home as you are afraid of losing it. He asked me to watch over you because some people here are attacking foreigners.”
“Thank you very much for your help. Is it dangerous for foreigners to be here?”
“No, it’s not. Not here anyway; but nearby – be careful there. They can catch you.”
“The Secret Services. They say on state television that America, Israel and other countries are sponsoring the revolution and have sent spies here, but I do not believe them; they are lying.
“Do you want to see how we live here?” she asked him.
“Yes, that would be interesting.”
“OK, but first, let me boil the kettle, while you keep an eye out.”
They walked around a group of people having a discussion, and towards a metal fence that separated the area from the sidewalk, where there were pitched tents, scattered sleeping bags, thin mattresses, clothes and bags.
“Nada, can I boil the kettle?” she asked a girl who was pensively sitting on a mattress.
“Yes, but don’t forget to return it later,” Nada said and yawned, picking up a thick book lying nearby.
She put the kettle on the base, from which a long, snake-like wire ran to a lamppost and slithered up to the light bulb socket connected to the electrical grid.
“Why did you come here? Do you want to support us?” she asked Alexey as they walked a hundred metres to where she had settled with her belongings and tent.
“No, I’m looking for my girlfriend. She left me. She should be in Tahrir.”
“Why did she leave you? What happened?”
Alexey told her about his and Kate’s complicated relationship: how he took care of her, but she didn’t listen, how they would quarrel from time to time, and how she’d left with another man and reappeared after a few days to tell him it was over. He stretched the story out, depicting himself as a sufferer whose love had been disregarded and brutally trampled upon, in spite of his care and gentle nature. He wanted to look like a hero in the eyes of this girl, look like a person who loved faithfully and faced betrayal with dignity, but his nervous voice and wild gestures gave the opposite impression.
“She did the right thing. I mean how she broke up with you. Please don’t be offended, but you set too many restrictions on her. Even I, an Egyptian, who has had more restrictions in my life and less freedom than you guys in Europe, can tell you that. Imagine – she is a young girl who came to another country and then all this happens. Revolutions don’t happen every day. I would do the same if I was in England and there was a revolution there. It’s exciting. History unfolds in front of your eyes.”
“But it’s dangerous. People are dying. Many are already wounded,” Alexey said, upset that she held a different opinion.
“How old are you?” she asked, pouring black tea into two thick glasses.
“You are young, and she is even younger. You probably don’t understand or haven’t lived through this period of life, but when you are young, you just want to try everything. She wanted to have adventures, so she was bored with you and that’s why she left you.”
“But I love her and it’s hard for me to leave her. She didn’t think about me, she didn’t understand that she hurt me. She broke my heart.”
“You didn’t think about her; why should she think about you? You only wanted good things for yourself, for her always to be with you. You are an idealist. She probably didn’t love you and it’s a good thing that you broke up. In any case, your relationship would have ended one day anyway – you’re too different, and your paths would split sooner or later.”
Alexey was deep in thought. He felt divided. He liked the girl. She seemed intelligent and attractive. Her heartfelt, pensive brown eyes looked at him piercingly, as if they were penetrating him. At the same time, her words confused and hurt him, and her frankness pushed him away. She had not convinced him that he had to accept his situation and forget Kate. On the contrary, he suddenly wanted to end this conversation and, after saying goodbye, go to find her.
“By the way, I haven’t introduced myself. I am Alexey from Russia; what’s your name?” he asked.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Miriam from Cairo,” she said, offering her hand.
“Miriam, tell me. Are you afraid here?”
“No, I’m not. I’m not alone,” she answered, drinking the hot tea in small sips.
“Well, you’re a girl. I mean, it’s mostly men around here. There are only a few women. What if they do something bad to you?”
“What are you talking about? They treat me like a sister. There are so many good people here. Everyone helps each other. Everybody cares for each other. They feed me, we talk and sing, I play guitar, and somebody else reads poems. I have met so many interesting people, you can’t even imagine.”
Alexey put down the empty glass and looked around. It seemed that a parallel life existed in the square, different to the city, more rich and interesting. There was no fear, no sense of danger. There was no tension; no one expected any nasty surprises. Your consciousness wasn’t restricted because there were no roadblocks, burned cars or looted shops. Rather, a spirit of freedom soared over the area, and was noticeable in everyone. He liked the atmosphere. He had not expected that he would feel so easy and relaxed. All these people were so agreeable to him – chatting, wandering around aimlessly, shouting slogans, singing and chanting. There was sense, logic and purpose among the chaotic hubbub. He sensed a deeper understanding of Kate’s nature, now that he had started to comprehend the nature of those around him. It now seemed to him that he was wrong to refuse her offer to join demonstrations and come to Tahrir.
“When will everything end?” he suddenly asked Miriam.
“Soon. We just need patience, and, most importantly, to keep coming together.”
She lifted her head a little, tied her long, curly, black hair back into a bun, pulled a hairpin out from her trouser pocket and fastened it.
“Now I will sing,” Miriam said and picked up a guitar.
She sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Her melodious voice attracted people nearby, who left their lazy conversations to come and listen, enchanted by her. They applauded, asked her to sing again, and she continued to sing songs of love, freedom and life. She sang songs by U2, the Beatles, Coldplay, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, and people assembled, completely filling the space by her tent. She sang a few songs in Arabic, inciting even more emotion in the audience, many of whom joined in the singing.
Alexey looked at her: her moving hands, the inspiration in her face, her detached gaze – she reminded him more and more of Kate. He could not identify exactly what it was, but there was something similar about them. Not just bodily movements, facial expressions, self-confidence and assertiveness, but he perceived something that united them to an even greater degree – their brokenness. It seemed that both of them, in spite of their very young age, had once been devastated by life and then reborn; they had both overcome utter disillusionment, a fissure that had left a deep wound in their hearts. They had both taken their own paths, relying on a core formed early in life by internal crisis, and at the same time they both feared something in themselves, something dark and destructive, and kept running away from it, as if forever trying to forget.
“Although maybe it’s my imagination; they don’t even look alike,” Alexey thought, continuing to enjoy the music.
After the lyrical love songs ended, he suddenly recalled why he had come here; without saying goodbye to Miriam, he quietly walked out of the dense ring of people and roamed the area, hoping that he would finally meet Kate somewhere, but she was not there, she was gone, and perhaps she had never even come here. He repeatedly asked the protesters about a foreigner, dressed in Egyptian clothing. Some didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand him; some silently smiled with a look of something like sympathy, as if realising that he had lost his love. Alexey was upset. He felt that he was a stranger here, that he was needed neither by her nor by this mass of people, whatever they were doing. He suddenly realised that he was entirely alone, and the surrounding area amplified his loneliness and pushed him out.
Alexey left Tahrir sad and confused. It seemed that he had lost her forever and they would never meet again.
“He is such a weak person,” Kate said scornfully, as they drove towards the city centre.
“Didn’t he want you to leave?” Robert asked.
“He wouldn’t let me go out. He begged me to stay.”
“Well, you should have stayed if he loves you so much,” he said with a sarcastic tone.
“No, Robbie. You still don’t know me very well. I’m tired of this relationship; I’ve had enough.”
“So now you have returned to me,” Robert said, jokingly.
“Yes, I’ve returned, but not as your girlfriend,” she said. “You know every person has a certain period in life when it is necessary to stop and be alone for a time. I am in that period now. Besides, the revolution has absorbed me completely. It is a tough time now, it’s not for love and sentiment.
“You know, Robbie, I have only one feeling these days and that feeling is a devotion to the revolution. It has filled an empty space in my heart. Maybe it sounds fantastical, but I feel better now than ever before. I have finally found a goal in life.”
“What is that goal?” Robert asked.
“I always wanted to change the world. I took part in various movements – in Greenpeace, in different protests in London, in your anti-globalist movement – but it was all abstract, distant and unreal to me. All our actions led to nothing: the laws were the same, politics haven’t changed, the war did not stop and the world ignored us. We played some role, we pretended that our work was important and many things depended on us, but in fact, nothing depended on us. We thought that our opinion mattered but in reality, it didn’t matter at all.
“Now everything is different. Now I know that a lot depends on me, that my actions determine the fate of the entire nation. I feel that even an ordinary person like me can make a difference. My self-esteem has risen in the past few days, and I have started believing in myself for the first time in my life. I see the meaning of what I’m doing. My goal, Robbie, is to be here in this exciting time, to help people and to be useful. When you know this, you see the results of your efforts and you begin to experience life in a completely different way.”
“You’re right, Kate. Yes, it’s like that. What we were doing before was just child’s play. Now this is real and many things depend on each of us. We are growing up because of these events.” Robert said.
She looked at him with admiration. This conversation gave her more confidence.
“Has Belal changed his mind? Has he just decided for sure that he is not coming?” Karim asked Wessam.
“Yes, and he is not the only one.”
“And that girl too?”
“Who? Magda? I’m sure she won’t come. I meant Ahmed. He is also not coming.”
“Really? He was on our side yesterday.”
“But today he called me and said that he wouldn’t participate in the protests for some reason,” Wessam said discontentedly.
“A lot of people surrendered after the president’s speech yesterday. He played it quite well and it has affected people’s feelings,” Karim said dryly.
“But it was a cheap trick. How is it possible that people have fallen for it?” Kate asked.
“We have too many sentimental people. People are naïve and think that the regime is kind and fair; even though it has discredited itself, they believe to the last it will change,” Karim answered.
“People are hoping for a miracle; they believe in miracles and they want a miracle,” Robert said.
“That’s why everything goes like this, and after one dictator there comes another,” Wessam said, holding the steering wheel of the car with one hand and pulling out a pack of cigarettes with another.
This time they left the car further away from Tahrir, somewhere near Ramses Square.
Tahrir was calmer than the day before. There were not so many protestors and some kind of laziness and apathy could be seen on the people’s faces. Only a few of them continued protesting and actively calling for action. The majority of people on the square walked slowly back and forth, looking around and watching what was going on.
“I feel that today is not our day,” Robert said to Karim, as they slowly walked around the square.
“Maybe it’s too early. There will be more people in the afternoon, Inshallah,” Karim tried to cheer his friends up.
“I don’t think so. It looks as if people have surrendered after yesterday’s speech. I’m afraid that we might lose the revolution,” said Wessam.
“We have to do something. We have to gather the people, agitate them, and maybe hand out leaflets. If we don’t take any significant steps, then we will lose the revolution,” Robert said.
“Yes; if you don’t eradicate the evil, it will double,” Karim quoted a proverb.
It was obvious that they were all disappointed. Just yesterday, it had seemed that a victory was close; they had been full of hope, optimism, and the atmosphere of celebration and jubilation had filled the square. Today, everything had vanished, like a mirage in the desert, flickering distantly with water but disappearing and leaving behind frustration, which turned into treacherous despair.
Suddenly a strange rhythmic rising sound was heard from the side of the National Museum. The asphalt seemed to shudder and shiver. The air throbbed explosively as the monotonous sound filled the space. Soon, men appeared, racing on horses with lightning speed. The cavalry squeezed into the crowd and then spread out chaotically in different directions. People screamed and ran away, trying to escape the horses, which knocked over anything in their way. The riders were brandishing lashes, whipping to trigger more panic. They raced proudly and imposingly, as if they were winners in a race, shouting obscenities and trying to intimidate the protesters even more. Some held swords and waved them menacingly, preparing to start slashing people.
Camels followed the horses. They were clumsy, but fast. They were well fed, well groomed and decorated with colourful rugs, as if they had been taken out of a stall owned by some rich man; maybe previously they had entertained tourists at the pyramids. The camels caused even more panic among the people and it seemed that the square would soon be empty.
Suddenly, this critical situation mobilised the protesters and they started coming back to the area to throw themselves at the cavalry. People were shouting and trying to stop the horses and camels, slowing their pace among the crowd. They dragged the riders onto the asphalt, where they tried to escape and defend themselves, but the crowd caught them.
One of the riders had a document pulled out of his pocket by a protester and it proved that he was from the ruling party. Immediately, it became clear who the organiser of the clashes was. Soon after, documents from the police and the members of the National Democratic Party were found on other people as well. Some admitted that they had been paid to leave their places near the pyramids, and happy to earn something, they rode their horses and camels from Giza to the city centre.
Soon, a crowd of regime supporters appeared on the horizon from the 6th October Bridge. They began furiously throwing stones and boulders at the chain of people lined up to guard the access to Tahrir. People from all around the square rushed to the National Museum to help the defenders. Now the most important thing was to protect the square and prevent the enemy from penetrating it. Stones were thrown on both sides and the cries of the wounded could be heard. People put hands on their injuries and some had fallen, but the struggle continued. Several times the revolutionaries retreated, fleeing to the square, but then again they mobilised to knock the enemy back, and the stoning resumed.
Wessam, Karim and Robert were in the midst of their ranks, while Kate stood away from the action, leaning against the closed shutters of a travel company, intently watching one group stoning another a few hundred metres away. Sometimes the stones and shards landed nearby, scaring her, so she took a few steps back. The hail of stones stopped for a while. Along with others who had a wait-and-see attitude, she moved forward in the hope that it was all over and they had won. It was quiet for a while, but soon flying boulders reappeared heading in their direction, and they returned to their hideout.
She saw wounded people, covered with blood, and sometimes writhing in pain. Some of them had managed to bandage their heads, face and hands. Someone’s eyes had been damaged and blood oozed from them; he walked like a blind man, leaning on a helper. Someone could no longer move and had to be carried like a doll by others, where he hovered above the ground. He was being taken to the field hospital or to the mosque, where all the other wounded were being taken as well as all the dead.
A man methodically pounded a metal rod against the pavement, hammering out stones that people then threw in different directions. Further away, people hammered one after another, crushing large rocks with swords or smashing them on the asphalt. After taking handfuls of the small stones, they walked forward to the line of defence, throwing them to repel their attackers. From time to time, people ran up to take a few scattered stones and then quickly ran back to their positions. In some places, the pavement resembled a ploughed field, jagged and ready for sowing.
Kate felt exhausted, and for more than ten minutes searched for Robert, who was lost in the crowd. Fearing that he was wounded, and maybe lying somewhere nearby requiring her help, she walked towards the line of defence. After a few metres, she saw Robert, walking towards her and supporting Karim, who had been wounded. He held a cloth against his cheek and his blood saturated the cloth but it was not helping; the blood continued to flow down the right side of his face and onto his shirt. Kate took wipes from her backpack and cleaned the wound several times. However, his face stayed clean for just a few seconds before the blood started pouring again, because the wound was deep.
“You need a doctor,” Kate told him. “The cut is too deep. It might become infected.”
“There’s a field hospital on the other side of the square. I will go there.”
“I’ll help you to get there,” said Kate.
“No, I can handle it myself. You should go home as soon as possible. It’s very dangerous here. Robert, please ask her to leave,” Karim begged Robert.
“It’s OK, I’ll stay away. I’ll stand on the sidelines and just watch. If I see danger, I will leave,” Kate said convincingly, interrupting Robert, who was trying to speak.
“It’s not about that. There are snipers. They kill people,” said Karim.
“Really? Where are they? I didn’t see anybody.”
“They’re on the roofs of the surrounding houses. They even shoot from the apartments. They don’t care if they kill a man or a woman, or an elderly person. They are just out to kill.”
“Yes, it’s true,” Robert interrupted. “I saw strange movement on the roofs. You’d better go now.”
“Where?” she asked.
“Home. You should go home. It’s much safer there,” said Robert.
Kate looked at Karim and, seeing that his wound was bleeding again, began to clean it.
“We need a bandage. We forgot to bring sterile bandages. Come on; I’ll take you to the hospital,” she said to Karim.
“No, Kate. I can walk alone, and you have to leave, the sooner the better.”
Karim put his hand on the wound and started walking towards the hospital.
“At least take wipes,” Kate yelled after him, and ran to him, handing him a pack of wipes.
She didn’t understand what was happening to her. On the one hand, she was scared, and she knew that it was dangerous there; but at the same time, she didn’t want to leave this place. Something held her here. She thought that the presence of everyone in Tahrir was crucial at this time as it could decide the fate of the revolution, and her departure would be similar to a betrayal. She was also afraid to leave because she felt excitement raging inside her that was tearing her apart. She somehow had to transform all these into action or into communication with somebody.
“Shall I defend the square with you?” she offered Robert her assistance.
“No. It won’t work. I beg you, get out of here. Go along the streets and lanes until you come to any busy street then take a taxi and go home, to Wessam’s apartment. I will come back in the evening and if I don’t come, please call me. The mobile service is still working.”
“Can I wait for you somewhere nearby, in a café or restaurant?”
“No. We don’t know how long this will last; maybe an hour or maybe all day. Maybe we will be defeated and arrested. You must get out of here. Listen to me, at least once. Will you do it?” he asked, and kissed her on the cheek.
“OK,” she said sadly.
“By the way, the keys are hidden in the electrical box outside the apartment.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Don’t worry about me, Robert,” she said.
“OK.” He approached her and kissed her on the lips. “Take care of yourself,” he said.
“I love you, Kate.”
“See you,” she said, smiling widely.
He now appeared as a hero in her eyes, a courageous and stoic man. She realised that she loved Robert. After his kiss, she felt extremely relaxed, and her fears instantly melted away.
“I’ll be waiting for you at home, Robert,” she thought, recalling his kiss with vivid sensations.
Kate came to a safe road, which lead away from Tahrir, and crossed a chain of people standing densely in two rows and guarding access to the square. She tried to pass quickly through the dangerous area where at any moment she could stumble upon aggressive people. Several times men approached and tried to stop her, paying compliments and asking questions, but she ignored them and kept moving.
When an intelligent-looking man wearing glasses came towards her, she tried to get past, but he gently took her hand and looked into her eyes so earnestly that she stopped.
He asked her something in Arabic, but she did not understand and abruptly took her hand away.
“Where did you come from, my dear?” he repeated the question in English.
“I am from England,” she said, wanting to move on.
“Are you participating in the demonstrations?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Me too. I was in prison because of my political views. For more than a year, I was in Tora Isteklyal. I was beaten there every day, but I survived. Look at my scar; this is where I was tortured,” he said, pointing to a white stripe on his cheek.
“So, are you fighting for justice now?” she asked, interested.
“Yes, of course. I am for the revolution. I have participated in the demonstrations since the beginning. These snakes have ruined my life. I hate them.”
“Nice to meet you. My name is Kate.” She held out her hand.
“Shafik. I am also pleased to meet you. Now the most important thing for us is to get out of here, Kate. Here many bad people wander around, thugs who rob and rape women. You can refuse my help, but I was sent to you by the Almighty to lead you out of here alive and unharmed. I know this area very well and I will lead you through the dangerous places. You are very good, you are beautiful; you shouldn’t be here alone. You should have a bodyguard. I’ll be your bodyguard,” he said, looking her up and down and nodding his head, as if trying to make his words even more credible.
After their conversation, her suspicions immediately vanished and she looked at him respectfully. As they went through the streets and lanes, she began to tell him her story, about her friends, about Robert, how they supported the revolution and had come to the square almost every day. Kate told him how proud she was of the Egyptian people, the unity of the nation and their courage, and that she wished for democracy in their country. She had never before been so frank with somebody whom she had met on the street, and as she opened herself up, she felt calmer. Something about him was charming – something in his eyes, in his frequent touch of her shoulders, in his soft voice and friendly smile. Something pulled her to him.
He silently listened to her, and when she finished, he took out a small bottle of water.
“Take it, have a drink,” Shafik said, handing her his bottle of water.
“How long is our walk? Where are we going?” she asked, finishing the bottle.
She suddenly recalled Robert’s advice that she had to go to the busy street and take a taxi to Nasr City, and she found it strange that Shafik was leading her in an unknown direction; he hadn’t even asked her where she was heading.
He didn’t answer and just continued walking quickly, sometimes looking around.
“Shafik. Where are we going? Answer me, please,” she asked again.
“We’ll get there soon. It’s not much further; just after this turn.”
“Which turn? How do you know where I live?” She stopped, confused, and stared at him.
“We have to walk away from here, away from thugs and rapists, and so I’m leading you. Trust me; just walk beside me and don’t ask stupid questions,” he said, irritated.
Suddenly she was filled with anxiety. It seemed to her that this man was pretending to be another person. She was confused and just stood there, not knowing what to do. She listened to her inner voice and she wanted to trust this man, to follow him and to reject her doubts, because he was one of them, but at the same time, something whispered a warning to her not to go with him, to run away and hide from this man.
“Do you believe me or not? I see doubt in your eyes. What’s the matter?” Shafik cried out. “Do you think I’m lying? Look at my eyes again and trust your intuition. Do you really see a lie in them? Why would I deceive you? You are like my daughter. You look like her. She is the same as you. The only thing is that you are a foreigner. You are my friend. We are all friends here, everybody in this difficult time, and we must help each other, support and protect. Allah sent me to save you, to be your bodyguard, but if you don’t believe me, you’d better go. I won’t keep you. Leave me. Get away from me.”
“Even if he robbed me, what could he steal from me?” Kate thought. “I only have a hundred pounds in my purse; I left my credit card in the apartment. I’m sure he is not violent; he looks too weak and doesn’t look like a maniac.” She suddenly began to wonder what the consequences of her stay with Shafik would be and wanted to experience the adventure. A thirst for something new and extreme flared up in front of her and beckoned.
“Why are you still standing here? Go away,” Shafik shouted again, standing a few steps away from her. “You can leave, but they are everywhere, bandits and rapists, supporters of the regime. They are like wolves. Go to them if you think I’m a crook. Go, and after the first turn they will attack you.”
“No, I’m wrong. If he was going to do something bad to me, he would have done it before,” she thought, and followed him.
“I am staying with you, Shafik. You are right. I need a bodyguard,” she said.
“That’s right. Follow me and don’t be afraid. We’ll get out of here soon, and you’ll thank me. You’ll remember me, then you’ll tell everything to your Englishman, all your friends, and we will all be friends. Together we will go to the demonstrations.”
They went down more lanes, dived through arches and crossed empty streets, until they came into the courtyard of an old house, covered with a layer of dirt and adjoined to another, unfinished, brick house, with bare columns and without walls on the upper floors.
“Where have you brought me, Shafik?” she asked in astonishment.
“Now you’ll meet my friends.”
“What kind of friends, Shafik? I don’t want to meet anyone. I’m leaving you now and taking a taxi. You brought me out of the danger zone. Thank you. Which is the right way out of here?” she asked, and slowly backed away from him.
“Stay with me and don’t move,” he said crudely.
“I know what I will do without you. Don’t order me. No one dares to order me. No one; remember that,” she said hysterically and walked away from him.
“Wait here, I said,” he cried, like someone possessed. He ran to her and immediately grabbed her tightly.
Kate tried to pull away, but he had a grip of steel and, after unsuccessfully trying to pull her hand out several times, she realised that she had fallen into a trap.
Shafik whistled as if he was giving a signal to someone that he had arrived; in response, two whistles sounded from the part of the house under construction.
Still holding her firmly by the wrist, Shafik pulled her through the doorway and into the brick house. The house reminded her of an old dilapidated castle which she had seen in Spain, where during the Inquisition in the Middle Ages heretics had been judged and tortured. Images of the instruments of torture that she had seen in the castle museum – pliers, saws, the knee crusher, collars with spikes for the head – appeared before her eyes. She was terrified, but then imagined herself as a martyr, who would suffer because of her political views. She suppressed her fear and lifted her head. It seemed to her that these unravelling events were unreal, just as if she was playing a game, where she would feel emotion and have fun, regardless of the result.
After walking up to the second floor where the stairs had no railings, they went into the doorway of an empty flat and she saw three men sitting on the concrete floor, surrounded by dirty belongings and mattresses. A terrible smell, created by a mixture of dirty unwashed clothes, fried chicken – the gnawed bones of which were scattered around – and hashish, stunned her senses and made her feel dizzy. The men were animated, chatting about something, sharing one joint amongst everyone; after seeing Kate come in, they suddenly fell silent and started to scrutinise her with their bleary eyes.
“Salaam,” said Shafik.
“Who have you brought?” asked a chubby man in his forties, dressed in a grey galabiya. His behaviour indicated that that he was the leader of this gang.
“An English woman.”
“Who is this? Who is this?” the leader said with a strong accent, walking around her as if evaluating her, and laughing gloatingly.
“Take off your scarf, dear,” he ordered with a commanding voice, staring at her face.
Kate pretended that she didn’t hear him and continued standing still.
“Take off your hijab quickly if you don’t want to cry, sharmuta^^36^^,” shouted Shafik.
“What do you want?” she said fearfully, taking off her scarf.
“Take it, Maged,” the leader said to Shafik, handing the scarf over.
She immediately realised that his name was Maged instead of Shafik, and that he was a man who had cheated her from the very beginning. What he had said about the prison and supporting the protestors was all a lie. It was a ruse to lure her into their den. She felt more afraid, but tried to maintain an unshakably confident expression so that her weakness would be hidden from them.
“What do you think about yourself, you foreigner?” the ringleader was demanding of her. “You came here to change our lives; I know what you want to do with Egypt. You want to destroy our country, but first you will steal from us. You are all the time lying on TV, because you want unrest in our country. We hate you and we will destroy you Americans.”
“She’s from England,” Maged corrected him.
“Who cares? We will destroy all those who try to steal Egypt from us: Americans, British and French. We were your colony and that’s enough. It will never happen again,” the ringleader was shouting at her.
It was obvious to her that, instead of calmness, aggression and anger had awakened in him under the influence of the hashish.
“Tell me, why did you all come here? Why did you come here? It’s not for no reason. You came here with a goal and you are paid for your dirty work,” he said a little more quietly, touching her arm.
The ringleader again started to scrutinise her and Kate saw him lustfully staring at her breast, as if touching it. She felt disgusted and turned away.
“And now take off your clothes. Give us England in you, our princess,” he laughed. “Do you have royal blood by any chance? We will promptly conceive an heir. We will have a new king of England, Prince Mohammed, healthy and blessed Muslim, and a true Arab.”
All members of the gang laughed rudely and mockingly. This laughter lasted about a minute, until the leader made a sign for them to shut up.
“Now take off your clothes, Princess of Wales,” he repeated again.
Kate asked resentfully: “What do you mean, take off my clothes?”
“Don’t you understand English, or do you think I speak with a strong accent? Take off your dress, sharmuta. We are going to check your virginity.”
One of the gang giggled again. Kate felt a cold tingle running down her spine and a chilling horror that made her limbs shake.
“No, I won’t. I refuse. You are criminals and you will answer before the law,” she said with a quivering voice, which turned into an unnatural, nervous squeaking, showing her mental state.
“What did you say, you bitch?” shouted the ringleader, and after lifting up the hem of his galabiya, took a big knife from inside his belt.
He put a blade to her throat, grabbed her roughly and turned her around, tightly pressing the knife to her neck. Kate did not resist, but she was trembling like prey caught by a predator, who was playing with her before ripping her apart. She felt the cold blade at the tightened skin, ready to tear her throat and pour out her blood. The pressure was very strong, but the blood did not trickle out, and because of this, her fear became even more piercing. After taking deep breaths, she heard the echoing beats of her heart all around.
“Are you scared?” he asked, and pushed the blunt end of the knife forward, as if to show her that he was just having fun.
“Yes, I am. Maybe you can stop. I’ll pay you,” she whispered, shivering all over.
“That’s business talk. This will be discussed later. In the meantime, relax and enjoy.”
He pushed her away, then put his hand on her shoulder and, with the tip of his knife, ripped her dress, tearing the fabric. Her back was partially exposed, but the dress did not slip from her shoulders. Then he shoved the knife back in his belt, hidden beneath his galabiya, abruptly grabbed her shoulders and began to rip the upper part of her dress, baring her shoulders. It seemed that his success made him get carried him away, and he continued to tear her clothes more, lower and lower, accompanying the action with a strange clicking of his tongue. The long sleeves hindered the dress from slipping away from her body, but by turning Kate back again, he began to strip it from her breasts, and now it hung like rags from all sides.
“What a queen,” he said, laughing wildly and looking at her half-naked figure in the torn dress. “Now undress yourself.”
Kate looked into the eyes of the rapist, and suddenly anger swept over her. She felt nauseous looking at him: his hands were coarse, dirty and offensive; his fat, greasy, sticky face had a big dark spot on his forehead, allegedly gained from frequent prayer, but most likely inflicted artificially by burning it from a heated tin spoon. She was disgusted by his look – bawdy, with eyes turning in different directions, as if he was imagining obscenities and waiting for the right moment to rape her. Anger and contempt for these people – who were more like animals than human men – gripped her completely now and overtook her feeling of fear, which was replaced by an awakening courage. She thought that it would be better to die than to let these vile and depraved beasts treat her as a weak victim and slowly destroy her. Suddenly, Kate pounced on him and sank her teeth into his hand with such force that she heard the crunch of bones and blood gushed onto the floor immediately.
The rapist staggered. He seemed to have lost control and was ready to collapse; but then he strained upwards abruptly and swung his other hand up to Kate’s face, whilst at the same time pulling the wounded hand out of the tenacious grip of her jaw. His face darkened and distorted immediately, simultaneously expressing hatred and vengeance with the awareness of his own sense of magnitude. As she fell, he quickly stepped onto her belly and, after bending his wounded bleeding hand, lifted up the hem of his galabiya with his healthy hand, to pull out the knife and raise it above her breast.
Kate saw the rays of the sun permeate through the open window and reflect on the blade, blinding her with a bright flash. She closed her eyes and everything inside her cringed in anticipation of something cold and terrifying, numbing her heart and mind with horror.
The sound of her screams echoed across nearby streets; her bloodcurdling cry resembled the howling of a wolf wounded by hunters, whining and then gradually fading to silence. Then everything stopped, and the ensuing stillness gave a little hope that everything had finished well and life, like a tree uprooted from the ground by a hurricane and falling back in the same place a moment later, began to resume its normal course.
The Black Desert was sinister and dark, burned out by lava and desolated by time, as if one of the circles of hell had come to the world’s surface from the depths of darkness. A dark secret was hidden in its resinous stones and charred hills; the mystery of birth and death, the mystery of the beginning and the end. Lava had once erupted from the crater and, spreading outwards, burned all that was living, leaving behind a murky trail. It drew out of another world and left behind a vivid reminder. Like a book written by nature, it spoke of an ancient story, a story of the struggle between good and evil.
Alexey was scared. Death, something abstract and distant, which he had considered false and non-existent, now stood in front of him and he felt its presence. In its gloomy dark apparel, it darkened his life and burned his future. All his plans and dreams were collapsing, and he felt sorry that he wouldn’t have a chance to fulfil them. A state of fear completely overwhelmed him. Along with blood in his mouth, he felt the bitter taste of despair. Never before had he valued and yearned for life as much as he did now. Through the severity, immersing him deep down, he felt a sharp pulse of love, clear and strong, that shone within like a bright fire, but at the same time was not directed at anything. It was a passion for life, dissolving and forgiving all the bad and negative things that had ever happened to him. The thought that life was a treasure, a gift given from above, suddenly struck him and brought him a vague hope that instantly turned into faith. He realised that there was someone out there, standing above all that was mundane and corruptible, who was full of love and compassion, and ready to forgive and give a new opportunity of life. Suddenly it seemed to him that he was in a temple and he could hear singing ringing out everywhere. He didn’t recognise the people there, but their faces were so bright and colourful that everything shone and glittered with an extraordinary sourceless light, filling the air and surrounding him.
“Lord, please forgive me. Please let me live.” This thought flashed through his mind; he felt goosebumps running over his body and that made him feel better. The pain did not go away, but he realised that the one who wanted to take him away had left, and his fear had also gone along with it. He felt relief and joy, and quietly wept.
He had seen their demonstration on the Nile Corniche. Aggressive and evil, they had carried portraits of the president, and like a pack of wolves, they had been looking for a victim to tear apart. They had asked him who he was and where he was from, and after recognising that he was a foreigner, they had attacked him and beat him relentlessly. They had kept hitting his chest and his face. It had just been a few people, but they had wanted to destroy him. He was on the verge of death, covered in blood, losing consciousness, and thinking it was the end; but he overcame his fear and survived.
With a slow and unsteady pace, Alexey went back to Tahrir. The ribs on the right side of his body ached from the slightest movement and his head ached as well. The field hospital located in the mosque was crowded with people, some lying on the floor and some standing, most of them with head and eye injuries. He was given first aid, his wounds were cauterised, and his face was treated with antiseptic solution. A nurse wanted to let him go, but the doctor decided that he should go to the hospital for further examination.
In the hospital, he was led from one room to another for what seemed like hours. He was x-rayed, his eyes were checked and then a nurse took him to the ground floor. After walking down a long corridor, she led him through a metal door into what seemed like an empty office. She then abruptly closed the door behind him, leaving him alone.
Alexey walked down a corridor, along which there were four doors leading to different rooms; only two of them were open. He looked inside one of them and saw a metal table, a variety of tools and a washbasin beside the table. A feeling of fear suddenly came over him as he realised where he was. Peering into the room, Alexey saw the outline of a human body lying on a gurney, covered by a white sheet. He was in the hospital morgue.
Obviously, the nurse had made a mistake and had taken him to the wrong room. Alexey ran back to the main door and pulled the handle, but it would not open. He tried again, and with all his strength, turned it to the left and then to the right, but it was locked. He furiously pulled the handle, banged on the door and pushed it, but it did not budge. He realised that he could not make it out of the morgue on his own. Fear grew into panic; it started to tear him apart. He did not know what to do or how to free himself from confinement. Thoughts were swarming chaotically with great speed in his head, colliding with each other and preventing him from making a decision.
He kept knocking on the door for some time, shouting and kicking the door with his feet, but no one heard him. The metal door only vibrated in response, muffling the noise.
A white clock on the wall showed the time as seven o’clock. Wondering what to do next, Alexey went back to the room with the large metal table. He looked at the table’s surface and saw his own reflection, distorted and enlarged, as if a ghost was living in the table and staring up at him. His features were stretched and unnatural, and his big eyes looked menacing and furious. The place felt creepy and his state of despair further enhanced his agony.
Next to the table, there was a stand with a metal case on it made of stainless steel, with different tools inside. There were scalpels, scissors that looked like nutcrackers, some tools of various shapes that looked like pliers, several rectangular knives without blades that reminded him of nail files only larger, and two knives with handles, that looked like table knives, only with an elongated pointed cone.
An immovable corpse was still in the room opposite. It was covered with a white sheet. It appeared as if it had been thrown there, laying on a trolley, waiting in line to be dissected without causing any more pain or suffering.
It was a woman. Her breasts stood out through the sheets, protruding like vessels shaped by the hands of a master, a sculptor. Her legs were folded and her bent hips gave the covered body a graceful appearance. The body was not alive, but it was beautiful. It fascinated him by its lines, and he felt compelled to find out what lie beneath the veil.
Alexey hesitated for about a minute and then lifted the sheet. What he saw left him stupefied. It was Kate. Her face was black and blue; she had bruises on her hands and a huge red wound in the centre of her chest. Her body was mutilated and her facial features distorted. She was different. There was something ambiguous in what he saw, something strange, inexplicable, and at the same time, deep inside himself he knew it was not her; it was a doll, only the shell that remained after her death. Yes, she was in front of him, but this was not his Kate, the one that he knew before.
No, he was not afraid; he just looked at her naked body, which had once belonged to him and brought him pleasure. He had no more love for her; love was no longer associated with this body. Love was somewhere far away in an unattainable place, and in his memories, which were no longer manifested in his heart. The outlines of her face, her lips, frozen in a small smile, her big eyes, closed with long black lashes, her gentle swan neck, her firm breasts – it was all already strange to him. It all belonged to eternity.
He took her cold, dead hand and gently kissed it. It was not warm like before – it did not have her energy and tenderness. It was just skin stretched out over a piece of meat. Nevertheless, he wanted to stay with her. He felt that he would be able to revive her, wake her from this deep sleep; he wanted to make her chest rise, her lips move and her hand clench his own.
He took her wrist and felt for a pulse. There was no pulse. He pressed his head against her chest and listened. Her heart was not beating. He placed his hand on her forehead – it was very cold. Shivers ran down his spine. Alexey began to shake, and before long, he was trembling uncontrollably with shock. Gradually, he managed to regain control of himself and, after gathering all his strength, kissed Kate softly on the lips and then covered her with the sheet again, a shroud, hiding her from the world.
“Yalla, Yalla^^37^^,” a Bedouin shouted. They had to keep going.
Alexey looked around the Black Desert; he found no beauty here, there was no excitement in its scenery; on the contrary, the memories of recent events emerged and reopened his wounds, causing only pain and disappointment. He wanted to leave this place behind and forget the oppressive condition that had been haunting him for the last few days like a shadow. Here the shadow only intensified as it hung over him like a cloud, obscuring all the light inside him.
The monotonous music from the radio filled the interior of the jeep with a slow-moving rhythm, blending with the monotony of the desert and the unchanging landscape: mediocre, but at the same time majestic. It seemed that time and space did not exist here.
Alexey felt that he was gaining inner peace, as if a glimpse of enlightenment touched him with its rays, and removed from his consciousness all the dirt and negativity that had been clouding his mind.
He suddenly realised that the main mistake he had made in life was that he constantly analysed and attempted to think of everything logically. He now realised that there were things in life that simply could not be explained. Some were beautiful, some were ugly, they could cause pain or joy, they carried the truth or lies, but they always passed, picked up by time, just as by the flow of a river, carried away into the past, disappearing over the horizon.
New things come to replace them, filling in life again, passing and continuing their flow, coloured with feelings. Only feelings force us to keep things and not let them go, to become attached to them, rejoice or suffer, and return us to memories that we become caught up in again and again. No, there is nothing wrong with feelings, because we are alive, but when we use logic and analysis to explain them instead of moving on further with our lives, we suffer; we twist images and memories in our heads, and distort our feelings by intensifying them. We deafen our hearts and thoughts and by digging in the past, we attach ourselves even more to events and things that no longer exist, as we create them again in our imagination. We are slaves in this illusion, we have no control over ourselves; another world is able to control us, a world created by us, and a world that can be easily managed and used by circumstances. This is indeed the biggest misconception – the attachment to what is no longer a reality, in particular to feelings, things, events or people that have left their footprints, but that no longer have a part to play in life. No one can understand why it happens and why the world was created in this way, why everything in life is like a gushing stream. No one can paint a true picture of the world, just as no one can paint a true picture of their lives. Yet maybe everything does have a meaning? With every event, every acquaintance, every feeling, and every parting, we find out something new about ourselves and we grow, we change and learn – we continue to live.
Suddenly he felt a new sensation arise in his chest, soothing him and gently leading him to new feelings, light and tranquil, tenderly whispering a melody from his childhood and, like the bright sun, melting a castle of ice created by his imagination. All his dark thoughts, dismal memories and tormenting doubts began to fade away, exposing their deceptive nature and opening another perspective, in which he was in unity with the surrounding world.
He realised that his heart was shining so brightly and plunging him into another state. He had let Kate go, the same way as he let go of all insults and doubts, and succumbed to the flow of life, without stopping and without clinging to any feelings, concealed by thoughts.
Then he was in another room, where there were corpses in refrigerators. There wasn’t room for all of them in the freezers, and some were scattered on the floor, slowly decomposing, creating a stench that permeated the atmosphere. They were mutilated, covered in wounds and injuries. There were so many of them, and from this sight, he had felt a sudden urge to vomit, forcing him to run out of the room.
He was soon freed from the mortuary. The nurse had realised her mistake, returned to open the door and apologised continuously to Alexey, but this misunderstanding had allowed him to come face to face with Kate one more time.
Alexey met Robert the following day. Kate had left her mobile phone in his apartment. After finding various numbers of mutual friends, Alexey began to ring them all. In the beginning, Robert could not believe that she had died, and when Alexey went to meet him in Nasr City, he broke down in tears. They sat at the table, drank beer and remembered Kate and their adventures. They longed for her and discussed what they could have done to avoid her death, but they knew that it was not possible to bring her back. They were united by the flames of love that had not yet been put out and continued to burn, absorbing the dry wood of the past, slowly glowing and leaving behind its black, smouldering embers that would crumble into dust and become a useful mould for new feelings and new love.
They reconciled and forgave each other. Alexey had changed; he had become a different man. He had thrown away all his fears and doubts, and no longer sought to hide or escape from danger. He wanted to fully immerse himself in protests, distract himself from depression and at the same time avenge Kate’s death. He had abandoned the rented apartment, moved all his belongings to Wessam’s flat and, after taking only essential items, started to live in Tahrir. Wessam had lent Alexey a tent, and he pitched it on the square and spent all his time with the protesters.
The square came to life in the afternoon, when many returned from work and rushed to support the people who had settled in Tahrir. By the evening, the movement and noise escalated to its limit and everything resembled a festival – cheerful and boisterous, full of joy and emotion. The whole square vibrated like a body, young and dynamic, animating the whole country with its energy. It was a city within a city, with houses in the shape of tents, a field hospital, a mosque, and street cafés with food and drinks, as well as a theatre in which they mocked the regime, with musicians, singers, poets and activists, who all gave speeches and supported the cause. Nobody disturbed them, neither the tanks nor the soldiers surrounding the square. Only the snipers hidden on the rooftops and in the apartments of nearby buildings would randomly pick someone from the crowd from time to time and deprive him of life, but they tried to ignore the losses in their ranks; they were still full of optimism and waited for the regime to surrender.
Finally, that day came. In the beginning, no one could believe what had happened. Everybody called their friends and acquaintances to make sure it was true, but when it became clear, the square burst out with cries of relief, turning into a roar. People chanted, people cheered, some danced, some hugged others, some sang songs and many cried from overflowing emotions. There were flags waving in the air, flags of the new country, free and independent, ready to build a new future.
Robert flew out a few days before the victory. He said that he was tired of the revolution, and that his mission was over, but Alexey knew that there was another reason. He had had a dispute with Wessam and Karim, and they had not been able to reconcile. They had often discussed plans and projects together, and when Alexey came to visit them, he used to notice that they had tried to hide something from him. It was obvious that Robert was unhappy about something, and sought to suppress his anger.
In the last days before leaving, Robert became very nervous. He kept talking to Alexey about marriage. He wanted a stable life, a family, predictability. It seemed as if he had become a new person, or maybe he was simply disappointed in everything. He came to Tahrir, talked to people, and spent time with Alexey, but he no longer had the enthusiasm he once had. He stopped giving speeches and didn’t call for action anymore; he was not proud of his accomplishments and stopped trying to prove anything. His spark had gone and his interest disappeared. “Maybe he still misses Kate,” Alexey thought, but Robert never talked about her again and did not give any reason to do so.
When they headed southward along the desert road, Alexey saw the White Desert, and something changed inside, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders; he realised that he was blessed. Everything took on a different plan, everything ceased to exist, and only the whiteness of the rocks, protruding from the sand, blinding, could carry one to different expanses, light and unearthly, as if to some kind of ideal world where there was no hunger, no war, no revolution, no suffering and no betrayal. In this world, everything was subjected to perfect order, based on neither laws nor the power of rulers, because love here was everywhere. Inexhaustible and all-encompassing, not clouded by greed and jealousy, love gave happiness and glistened in pure white, understanding and forgiving, soothing and carrying the faith, encompassing wisdom and defining the essence of all things.
They moved further inland, past bizarre shapes, which looked like they had been carved by somebody’s hand. The sun was setting, leaving a shade of pink on the white stones and complimenting the yellowness of the sand. Soon the stars lit; there were so many, filling up the whole skyline. He did not try to count them; he knew that he should just watch them, enjoying the greatness of their beauty.
1 Alhamdulillah (arab.) – Thanks God
2 Eid al-Adha – Festival of the Sacrifice, the second of two religious holidays celebrated by Muslims each year.
3Inshaalah (arab.) – God willing.
4Allahu Akbar (arab.) – God is great.
5Malban – Egyptian delight.
6Basbousa – Egyptian cake made from semolina with almond.
7 As-salamu Alaykum (arab.) – Hello.
8 Habibi (arab.) – Dear.
9 Allah Yarhamuk (arab.) – Rest in peace.
10 Khallas (arab.) – Enough.
11 Dokki – District in Cairo.
12 Freska –Egyptian sweet.
13 Salam! Kaifa haloka? (arab.) – Hi. How are you?
14 Ahlan sadiqi. Ana bekhair (arab.) – Hey friend, I am fine.
15 Alf mabrouk (arab.) – Congratulations.
16 Batil (arab.) – Illegitimate.
17 Masr (arab.) – Egypt.
18 Irhal ya Mubarak (arab.) – Leave Mubarak.
19 APC – Armoured personnel carrier.
20 Zamalek – district in Cairo.
21 Feteer – Egyptian closed pizza.
22 Selmiya (arab.) – Peace.
23 Al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam (arab.) – People want to overthrow the regime.
24 Ibn il-Homaar (arab.) – Son of the donkey.
25 Kol Khara ibn el sharmuta (arab.) – Eat shit, son of a bitch.
26 ahbal (arab.) – stupid.
27 Basha (arab.) – Boss / Mister.
28 Maa Al Salama (arab.) – Goodbye.
29 Khalas (arab.) – Enough
30 Ibn El Sharmuta (arab.) – son of a bitch.
31 Inshaallah (arab.) – If Allah wills.
32 Baltageyah (arab.) – robber, thug.
33 Shukran (arab.) – Thank you.
34 Salam (arab.) – Bye.
35 V&A museum – Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
36 Sharmuta (arab.) – a whore.
37 Yalla, Yalla (arab.) – Come on, come on.
“Tahrir” is a historical novel about Egyptian revolution. It’s a story about people who strive for changes and protest against the authorities. Set in the midst of the struggle to overthrow Egyptian Dictator Hosni Mubarak, it speaks not just of the struggle for freedom, but of the many individual and very different lives that united to enable it. The love story is a pivotal part of the book. The love affair between a woman, who joins the revolution and is swept away by ideas to change the world, and a man, who is a firm believer in peaceful and evolutionary solutions to social conflicts, is tested by a turbulent sequence of events. In order to be coupled, they have to make a choice – do they sacrifice their love or their ideals? Vivid descriptions of Egyptian nature, architecture, traditions, the way of life, food, atmosphere and protests allow the reader to submerge into the flavour of this exotic country and be an intrepid traveller, witnessing unprecedented events. Meticulously researched and exquisitely written, hope and sadness, love and loss are intermingled in this book - a book that will make you laugh, cry and want to take to the streets - a book that will make you question everything you know and everything you hold dear.