Hani Omar Khalil

An Edifice of the Imagination

       Mazen will be pulled from a street in Cairo; he will not know by whom, or even from which street. He will only know, that moments before, he was running, along with thousands of others, towards a narrow horizon, towards the absence of tear gas, rocks, and gunfire. 
       Some will say he was pulled from beneath the arcade of Baehler’s Alley, while others will say it happened under the highway behind the Museum. And others will say it didn’t happen in Cairo at all: that he was in Alexandria, along the Corniche, or in Aswan, along a different Corniche.
       In any case, he will be thrown to the ground, or maybe up against a wall, or against, or even through, a shop window; imagine a shoe store, or an airline office, one that doesn’t fly to Egypt anymore: from Sofia, Copenhagen, Mogadishu. 
       His attackers, it will be said, came at him from within the crowd, or from behind. Some will argue there wasn’t any crowd at all, that he was in a safe house, a makeshift triage unit, that it was somebody who betrayed him, who believed Mazen himself was the betrayer. 
       They will be clothed in uniforms of olive drab, or flak jackets of faded black, in apparel indistinguishable from his own. Some will claim he wore imitation designer clothes, like so many others on Tahrir, while others will claim he was dressed in rags, like an ordinary vagrant.  And others will insist he was dressed casually, yet deliberately, in the manner of a foreigner, the kind with easy access to an H&M, an Urban Outfitters, a Zara. 
       Early consensus is that neither he, nor his captors, wore the traditional galabiya of a common peasant. Any suggestion to the contrary is dismissed out of hand as nonsensical, the work of a dilettante. Don’t be cute people will tell me this is no laughing matter.

       The Republic, with Mazen coursing unimpeded through its dead end streets, will soon collapse unless justice is distributed quickly, and in exact proportion to the demands of public order. And so the first punch lands within seconds, maybe to the temple, or to the jaw. The first kick arrives almost in tandem, to the ribs, the shins, the sacrum. Each blow will sting, then dull, then sting again. If he is to sustain any of it, Mazen needs it to rain down on him relentlessly, without pause. 
       Nobody stops it from happening. The crowds will have already dispersed. There might still be food vendors, t-shirt peddlers, night watchmen – were this nighttime – standing sentry before closed up shop windows, one of which might have been the window Mazen was thrown through, if he were thrown.
       His attackers will use all manner of invective available to them: Son of a bitchMotherfuckerSwine, everyday profanities, nothing idiomatic or especially interesting. The facts might one day reveal how one attacker aspired to be a sculptor as a young man, or how another attacker bears an encyclopedic knowledge of Diego Maradona’s playing career, or how another attacker is the father of two young girls he hopes one day can leave Egypt, to Canada, the Gulf, marry a good man and put all of this behind them. 
       Each of them, no doubt, will be shown to be conflicted, imperfect, and easily undone in their own very ordinary ways, just like you or I. But while any man’s absurdity is the only compelling truth he possesses, his basic, animal cruelty can easily be assumed; there’s simply no story to be told there. 

       So, Mazen’s mind will wander to any number of places with each continuing blow: perhaps a mother he avoided, or a father he doesn’t remember, children he never had, mistresses and infatuations he wished he had pursued more vigorously, a song he had stuck in his head earlier that day, maybe Om Kalthoum, maybe The Smiths. 
       These notions will come to him in cinematic fade-outs of white, or in flickering vignettes of the subconscious. And there will be a video: shaken, blurry, open to interpretation, taken from across the street, from a balcony above it, from around the corner, from a satellite, each in seemingly different corners and under varying qualities of light, some in daytime, some night, all attesting breathlessly to the same event, before scattering across space and time. 
       The video will be posted, shared, re-posted, re-shared, becoming its own self-reinforcing narrative, its meaning shifting from one audience to the next: resistance to some, vigilance to others. Other meanings will be attached to it over time, more than I am able to personally recount. It will be set to music, sometimes Western, sometimes classical, sometimes folk, sometimes religious. 
       Nobody actually sees Mazen’s face up close, but I will be able to recognize him instantly. It will be his body that makes him famous: flinching and writhing, dulled, then inert, occasionally spasmodic, almost balletic. Instantly, he becomes a hero on Tahrir, or what’s left of it, and he will be embraced by Marxists and Islamists alike, or what remains of either of them by this point. 

       The Marxists will claim he wore a kuffeyeh, drank domestic whiskey, smoked Cleopatras, vigorously and without revulsion. They will describe him as a leader, a teacher, a comrade and a guide, who read Fanon in the original French and performed The Internationale on his oud. They will claim he sported an eyepatch, the result of buckshot taken to the face in the early days of the Revolution. For this, they will call him Sparrow, or Barbossa, though no consensus forms over which Disney pirate he more faithfully embodies. 
       Some will claim to have gone back with him years, to the American University, where he majored in Comp Lit, or Al-Azhar, where he was studying to be a cleric. One will claim, proudly, to have been cuckolded by him in high school, where he also excelled in handball. And another will claim, just as proudly, to be have been cuckolded by him while studying to be an imam. And another will claim, also proudly, to have been cuckolded by him right there in the Square, in one of the tents. There is never any woman to corroborate these stories, and no one will claim to carry his child, at least not initially. 
       The Islamists will insist he sported a beard and fasted every Friday. The precise length of his beard, and the duration of his fasts will quickly become matters of intense debate among competing camps. The Salafists will describe his beard as long and untrimmed, wild even, a matter of inches, perhaps even red, the marker of divine blessing. Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood will avoid any direct discussion of Mazen’s beard, but will praise it off the record as a signifier of virtue, commitment, and dedication. 
       The Salafists will claim Mazen fasted every Friday from dawn to dusk and that he offered a Khutba more than once, but views differ on the precise subject matter of the Khutba: some will say it was the Sura of the Ants, others will say it was feminine hygiene. The Brothers will claim he only fasted on the first day of the Lunar month, and always deferred to the Supreme Guide on matters of prayer. The Salafists, when faced with this discrepancy, will attribute it to a habit of evasion and omission for which the Brothers are known. Criminals and liars! one of them will mutter to me, before pleading to God for forgiveness. 
       Some will claim to know him by the callus on his forehead, that it was ridged and textured and bore the very name of God. Some will become violently angry at even the suggestion of such a thing. Others will simply laugh and light a Gauloise. No one will be able to tell me how he got there, or what ever became of him. 
       In the video, he will not be heard screaming and it is instantly speculated that he must have been a Deaf Mute. Public opinion will quickly coalesce around this idea. In this telling, Mazen, unable to scream, undistracted from the sound of gunfire and explosions nearby, feels every blow to his face, every fracture in his skull, more sharply and acutely than perhaps you or I would. His pain, in this telling, only adds to his virtue, a virtue on which everybody will immediately stake additional claims. 
       One t-shirt hawker, who has made a small fortune (for him) selling Premier League jerseys to protestors, will attest to having never seen Mazen speak a word during the days, weeks, and months he was on the Square. He will recount a silent exchange whereby Mazen purchased an Arsenal jersey using only hand gestures and signals. Some will say this was sign language, while other deaf protestors (and there are only a handful) will attest to having never met him. 
       Speaking through an interpreter, a Deaf Salafist will ask me What interest is it to you? I will ask him the same in response and, despite my own misgivings, we will nearly come to blows.
       The slightly larger community of protestors who only fake deafness upon police capture, usually with little success, will also attest to having never seen Mazen before. Within this group, it will be suggested that his gestures were not sign language, but the circumlocutions of somebody with no facility whatsoever for the Arabic language. And it is out of this suggestion, however marginal, that there will begin rampant speculation over who sent him. 

​       Alexandrians will say initially he is one of them, having heard him use the royal we in conversation before being picked up on the Corniche. Some will say they heard him speak Arabic but with an accent or a dialect they could not place: from Algeria, perhaps Tunisia. When asked if they’d ever seen, heard, or encountered anybody from either of these countries before, they will each, to a person, say No.
       Some will empathically say he spoke Hebrew, that they have pictures of him wearing IDF Blue. Others will emphatically say he spoke Turkish. Some will attribute the confusion to Hebrew sounding an awful lot like Turkish – it doesn’t – while others will suggest that Turkish sounds an awful lot like Farsi – not especially. I will meet a man who will speak of a cousin who worked briefly as a migrant in Spain, who will attest that Catalan sounds an awful lot like Hebrew, Turkish, and Farsi mashed together, but I will quickly realize he is only trying to make conversation, and will otherwise ignore him. 
       In Aswan, they will claim he is from Upper Egypt, in spite of his complexion, or what can be made of it. Others will disagree about even the color of his skin. Some will say he’s Nubian, others Bedouin. Some will say he’s Circassian, or Maltese, or Greek. Because nobody has seen anybody up close from any of these three groups in decades, there will be difficulty getting any confirmation as to what, precisely, is meant by this. 
You know, my mother’s neighbors were Greek, one woman will be overheard saying on the Metro, but I haven’t seen them leave the house in decades. She will contemplate checking in on them, but will later forget, perhaps out of embarrassment or indifference, mayhap the both. She will not know they died twenty-seven years prior, buried in an unmarked grave at the foot of the Muqattam Hills. 
       Mia Farrow will retweet about Mazen, so will her son; it will be seen by millions of viewers in a handful of western cities. It will soon go viral. Mazen will become an icon embraced globally.  Hashtags will proliferate. Few will spell his name right. 
       An army of speculators will descend on Cairo from around the globe, each trying to determine Mazen’s provenance and fate. I will recognize them instantly by their steno pads and their tendency to congregate in odd places: under the overpass by the Hilton, in front of the open sewer fronting the other Hilton, within the city, beyond the Square, milling aimlessly from one awkward diagonal and radial axis to another.
       They will speak to nobody other than themselves. Soon, locational matters will break down along ethnic lines. The Russians will keep to around the Hilton, the Chinese to the other Hilton. Brazilians will stick to the Marriott in Zamalek. Americans will scope for a place Downtown, where they will quickly grow distracted and decide to stay. 
Each group will search for traces of Mazen, perhaps a droplet of blood or a strand of hair, anybody who could make a verifiable ID. A personable Russian will offer me a cigarette under the overpass. I will politely decline, ask what interest Mazen is to him, only to be waived off.

       Mazen will soon be given many identities, more than any of us can conjure in a lifetime. Urban sociologists will claim he is actually Hassan the Tarantula, a seldom-seen street fighter who long ago took over the slums of Imbaba. Some will dispute this: that Imbaba is actually under the control of a diminutive female, sword-wielding, martial artist named Amina the Blade. Nobody has ever corroborated this for me; I have always wanted it to be true. It will soon turn out I was not alone. 
       Some will wonder if Mazen and Amina are connected, whether strategically or, it is suggested, romantically. A treatment for a soft porn , or what passes for soft porn in Egypt – think adult situations and moderately low necklines – will be written about them, and will be quickly greenlighted for adaptation.  Ahmed Ezz and, despite her age, Nadia Elguindy, will be linked to the project and it will screen later that Spring, but only once, during the Eid. 
       Audience members will leave in droves proclaiming, rather anxiously, We brought our daughters to see this! and the film will immediately be removed from every theatre in the country. Bootlegged copies will be circulated, in VHS, as a form of samizdat, among connoisseurs of the “cultural film” genre. 
       The soft porn will later be heavily edited and remarketed as a rom com – or what passes for a rom com in Egypt: no touching and mere innuendo. The crowds still won’t come. It will remain in theatres for months anyways.  

       At the dinner table, an aunt will ask what I know about Mazen, but between mouthfuls of rice and molokhia, I will demur. She will go on to describe a vast conspiracy, concocted in London, Washington, and Tel Aviv, to divide Egypt into three, with Mazen at the very center of it.  I will ask her in what capacity, and she will say Pick one! I will ask her for what purpose, and she will say Finish your rice!
       Another aunt, busy shelling okra, will call out from the kitchen that Mazen is an agent of the Qataris, but won’t elaborate further. Television commentary will begin to conflate both views, angrily and breathlessly. Mazen’s fate will soon become closely intertwined with whichever camp one identifies with most.  
       For those who believe Mazen was a Deaf Mute, it will be assumed that he is bludgeoned by the police to within an inch of his life beneath the overpass by the Hilton. Within the Deaf Mute Camp – who will come to be known as the Neo-Surdists – views will diverge over what happens beyond this point. All will agree he lives out his days in a vegetative state at the prison hospital in Tura. One school of thought will hold that he is left to die of dehydration. Another will claim that he is accidentally given a lethal dosage of muscle relaxant by an over-eager nurse desperate to make a name for herself, the latest in a series of copycat acts.
       For those who believe him an agent of the Qataris – Agentists, we will call them – Mazen will take refuge in the U.S. Embassy and never leave it. For those who believe him an agent of Mossad, he will come and go from the Embassy as he pleases, even spend his winters in Dahab. For those who believe he is CIA, he will only leave the Embassy once every afternoon to get his macaron and hot chocolate at the Four Seasons down the street. 
       A waiter there will claim to see him on a semi-regular basis, will say he pays in Euros, tips generously, purports to be Canadian when asked. This claim will soon be attributed to other waiters at other hotels, each establishment’s concierge staff professing zero knowledge of the matter, but encouraging me to pay a visit anyways. 
       For those revolutionaries who believe Mazen their leader, he will remain at large, one day soon to return. The Marxists will say he’s disappeared into the jungle, where he is organizing a guerilla army of peasants and laborers to do final battle with the regime. That Egypt has no jungle to speak of, and little tree cover to offer, will figure little in this telling.
       The Islamists, now willing to concede that Mazen wasn’t initially theirs’ to begin with, will claim he joined up with them in prison, that he recited the Shahada, permanently swore off liquor, sex, and drugs, and now follows the path of the righteous towards a world of eternal justice and virtue. Some will claim he fled to Libya and was killed by Tuareg mercenaries. Some will claim he winds up in Syria and is killed by ISIS, or one of its antecedents. Some will claim he is hiding in plain sight. Others will claim to have attended his marriage to a niece of the Supreme Guide at a country club whose membership the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated. 
       And others will say he is imprisoned at Tura with the rest of the Brothers. Among the Neo-Surdists and Brothers at Tura, there will be sometimes violent disagreement over whose cellblock he occupies. A disinformation campaign will begin among those Islamists at Tura who view Mazen as a threat, claiming he was actually swept up in one of the bathhouse raids. But nobody, for fear of outing themselves, will take responsibility for this assertion or how they became privy to it. 
       Some will claim he was sentenced to death in absentia. Others will claim to have seen him in court, represented by Amal Clooney. Some Agentists will offer her representation as further proof of a Western conspiracy, and will call for a permanent ban of her husband’s films. A Cairo cinema showing Tomorrowland will be ransacked and torched; there will be no casualties, in part because the theatre will be empty. All sides will agree it is the other’s fault.
       Not infrequently, these three camps’ views will converge as a matter of social necessity, and it will be agreed, albeit temporarily, that Mazen is a Deaf Mute Marxist-Islamist Agent of Foreign Powers. However, the matter of his death will remain an irreconcilable point of disagreement around which family, social, and business relations will grow strained. Neo-Surdists, who hew closest to this view, will witness their increased marginalization in the ensuing months. Many will leave the country; some will even change their names.  

       Some critics will argue that Mazen’s very existence was a hoax, that he was either deep cover, an informant, or the desperate illusion of some collective fever dream. One theory will hold that, having survived the attack, he is put through a Stockholm process similar to the Hearst kidnapping, and has been helping the new regime pick off subversive elements in the government and society at large.  
       This theory will initially be espoused by only one individual in the States whose social media presence gives his views far wider reach than they would otherwise merit. But soon it gains traction and becomes gospel.  Mazen, it is now argued, personally orchestrated the bathhouse raids and knows who killed Regeni, if he didn’t do it himself. He races to the scene of every church attack, every airplane bombing, weeps among the dismembered limbs and smoldering embers, and vows each time never to fail Egypt again. He bears every burden, absorbs every fault. He is Christ, if you require a Christ, Dajjal, if you even believe in evil, chaos and order, protector and assailant. 

       Each of these is just a theory, even if I’ve been susceptible to a few of them myself. How, after all, do you get to the truth of a story that no longer wants to be told? A story that denies its own veracity before a single word of it can be uttered? A story that, by its very utterance, impeaches the credibility of any who try to tell it? I wish I knew. 
       I can only offer that the Mazen of each of these tellings does not align with the one I have known: a deeply troubled and ineffectual young man grasping desperately for meaning in his life, one who didn’t die that night, if it were night, but who couldn’t possibly have survived it either.  I have held fast to the belief that, as the tear gas flew and the rocks rained down from the rooftops, Mazen not only escaped his captors, he actually killed them with his own bare hands, then he ran.  Towards where, I couldn’t tell you, and to what fate is anyone’s guess. 
       Know only that if you were to find him now, he couldn’t remember his own name. If you were to tell him what happened, he wouldn’t believe a word of what you said. And though I still see him, from time to time, he evaporates instantly on double take. It happened at the airport, in fact, as I was recently on my way out of the country, though it is now already in dispute which terminal, and in what role: some say he was mopping a bathroom floor at Domestic Arrivals, while others say he was working an espresso machine near the Alitalia gate. 
       All agree that our eyes didn’t meet, even as I tipped him. Nobody knows that I gave him a good long look anyways, or as long a look as the moment allowed, so at least one of us would always know that it happened, so that I would never have to take anyone else’s word for it, not even his own.  

Hani Omar Khalil is an attorney, writer, and photographer living in Brooklyn. A first generation Egyptian-American, he has written extensively about contemporary Egyptian theatre in translation for CultureBot and Baraza, with short fiction appearing in Corium and Epiphany. He received his B.A. in International Relations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his J.D. from Rutgers Law School.