Maryan Nagy Captan is an Egyptian-American poet, educator, and performer. She is the former art director at APIARY Magazine and teaches experimental writing with The Head & The Hand Press. She is the author of copy/body (Empty Set Press) and is an alumni of The Disquiet International Literary Program. Her work can be found in Mad House, AJAR, APIARY Magazine, Boneless/Skinless, and Sundog Lit.
All my life I wanted to be a gift to the Nile
after Ocean Vuong
Tell me it was for love
& nothing else. For love is the body’s way of asking for more
than it can take.
I’ll tell you how I once saw myself with your chest. How one night, after
a sixth time, we got up to make green lentils, and the grilled cheese I like
& I stood there washing dishes until my fingers pruned
and the rest of me
It was then I learned that in the wrong skin, a woman is like water
looking itself in the mirror.
In an earlier life, you could tell you were
because when you walked into a body of water,
would mean nothing to a god called Hapi.
Some days I am Hapi.
Some days I am a woman drowning.
after LOVE, by Tina Chang
Sara Elkamel is a freelance journalist and poet, living between Cairo and New York. She holds a Master of Arts in culture journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The GroundTruth Project, Ahram Online, Guernica, Riwayya, and elsewhere.
Ke-neen Ke-a-ee Ke-is-touse E-onas ton E-onon. Amem.
When my dad left I knew I had to protect Ma’ma
I didn’t know if I trusted God enough yet
So I climbed up the to the top shelf in the closet
Grabbed his Berretta .22 and ran to my room
Tear the handwriting
Of our sins
O, Christ our God
I think it may have been the first time I felt adrenaline
There I was
Alone with my dad’s gun
The only trace of him I had left
Holding the weight of what it means to be a man in my eight-year-old hand
Shooting invisible bad guys in the dark
I cried to the Lord
And he heard me
Something about the click of the hammer seemed wise
So I studied its character
I was the man of the house
With the 7 bullet magazine
Wooden panel grips
And tip up barrel
The gun was small,
And fit my hand perfectly
Like something outta King Arthur
God who was nailed
To the cross killed
Sin by the tree
I pointed it at the right side of my head
Pretended to be the Captain at the end of titanic who put a bullet through his right temple as the boat sank
I pulled the trigger
But it was a different click this time
It was hesitant
By your death you
Made alive a dead man
Whom you created
With your hand
And when I put the gun down to see why
Taking dominion of everything in the room like my dad would when he yelled
The window shook
The lamp rang
And the room reeked of gunpowder
Put to death our pains
by the nails with which
you were nailed
It was just a popgun from the Ice Cream Man, Ma’ma…
I’m sorry… go back to sleep
I put the .22 in a shoebox under my bed
But I couldn’t sleep from the adrenaline
So I lay
Breathing in gunpowder and fear of god
The Fairest Faith
I asked Abuna about boys in other places
In the middle of confession
I asked him if a boy born Muslim would burn in hell
He told me that if the boy dies as a boy
He will have a place in heaven with Christ
But if he dies a man
Having encountered Christ
and remains Muslim
he will burn
“But what if he is a good man, Abuna?
What if he is a good dad and a good husband, Abuna?”
“If he is a good man,
Christ will find his way into his life before he dies.”
Holy, Holy, Holy
Oh Holy Trinity
Have mercy upon us
I would hold onto the ivory Coptic cross Abuna Binyameen gave me at the monastery.
I wiped my tears
He told me I was a good boy, and to squeeze the cross if I ever need God.
When I cry out,
God of my right-
eouness heard me
I went on a retreat with some of the monks to the mountains
We prayed the hours in Agpeya every morning and every evening
Ate Orban after Ashayah
woke up at dawn for the Divine Liturgy
Oh Lord, do
not rebuke me
in your anger
as symbols clashed and the triangles mingled with with the smoke during the Prayer of the Veil
I saw Our Lord and Savior appear
His eyes rolling up to thorned crown of smoke
My eyes following
until I collapsed to the sight of sacrifice
How long, O Lord,
do you forget me
It was my fault his side bled water
O Lord, to you
O Lord, I have
Lifted up my soul
I felt the shame the bible told me about as I rubbed my starving stomach that night
The lord is my light
and my salvation
God shall pity us
When I was in class a white girl asked me about the cross Abuna gave me
I smiled and told her it was a Coptic cross
“what denomination is your family? I’m Coptic Orthodox.”
I was excited to meet another believer
“There is only one true Christianity”
she walked away and the doubts curled
my faith was dirty
O God, be
mindful to my help
the Lord is he
who shepherds me
I will exalt you, O Lord
I was tired of being hungry
and started stealing
knowing in the back of my mind I could always repent before death like one of the thieves that died next to Christ
Judge me O Lord,
Have mercy upon
me O God,
Gidu knew I wasn’t coptic anymore
I stopped saying goodnight to God before I slept and
telling Abuna Gawargious about my sins on Wednesdays
Incline Your ear,
O lord, He who
dwells in the help
of the most high
The Holy Hymns were fleeting from my consciousness
And the taste of Orban was leaving my memory along with the fear of God.
I kept sinning
The Lord reigned
The Lord said to my Lord
I loved because the
Lord will hear the voice
One Palm Sunday I went to church.
I wore a palm-folded cross on my shirt and Gidu pointed at me in front of my mom
“Shoofie, Hanafie! He is a Christian now.”
Gidu looked down after he said that and I felt like I began mirroring his eyes
I believe therefore
I have spoken
Out the depths I have cried to you
I started to hate God. I felt betrayed, like a child. I resented the Abunas.
O Lord I have cried to You,
hear me. Praise the Lord
Who was going watch after my me and my mom?
O my soul
Let my supplication
come near before You
Palm Sunday, 2016
Abuna blessed Coptic deaths
God has intent
Justifying killed lovers
Masr needs options
Synthesize tragedy unsteadily
buying blunts, at Bread and Butter
I ask, Ezayak?
when I see the man has the same eyebrows as me
he replies Keifa Halak?
I don’t know how to respond
so the conversation stales
then he asked where I’m from
Enna Masri, my family is from Asyute and Tatalayah,
HAHA! You are Saiidiiiihh!
Do you need help finding your way back home, Saidi?
I peeled the skin off the backwood
rubbed the tip with a flame
then called my father
to ask what the man meant
Saidi means you’re ignorant
A peasant from upper egypt
the smoke curled
from the cherry and seams
like snake skin staling
Then he told me a joke
On a dirt road leading to a saidi village, there was a hole
Now, everyone in the village was breaking their ankles and falling in the hole
So three of the village elders got together in an attempt to solve the problem:
The first elder suggested that they should convince the near by city to donate
an ambulance next to the hole
So when people fall, they can be driven to the hospital right away
The second elder said that was a horrible idea and that they should just have the city build a
hospital by the hole, so when people fall in the hole they are already by a hospital
The third elder said that those were both horrible ideas, and that the solution was simple: they fill
the hole with dirt, smooth it out, and dig a new hole for people to fall into,
next to the hospital they already had
I asked my dad if he thought we were really
He laughed, and said
Most of us can’t read
don’t have electricity
but we are a strong people
the blunt burned to stale ash
snake skin crusting off
my tongue with each pull
I asked my dad why he is proud of being saidi,
But ashamed we weren’t white
he said we aren’t in egypt anymore
and it would give us a better life
I breathed in the last bit of skin
Antony Fangary is a Coptic-Egyptian American who lives in San Francisco. He is an MFA student of Poetry at San Francisco State University and was the Honorable Mention recipient of the 2015 State-wide Ina Coolbrith Poetry Prize. You can also find his work in 2017 edition of Welter, Waccamaw, Left-Hooks, and University of Iowa’s BARS.
translated by the author
This may be the only musical kitchen in the building…
Here is a plump opera singer who loves food, especially goat meat, leaning against the stove. A goat thigh embedded with garlic cloves is in the oven. She’s singing parts of a modern opera written for her by her poet boyfriend – although this was not the age for poets to write famous operas – but the poet was patting a goat, tied up in a corner of the kitchen, whose turn had not yet come, before leaning on the other side of the stove and gazing appreciatively at his girlfriend’s long lashes, trembling, the pupils shrinking and enlarging as her passion for singing took over. The aroma of the meat created a sense of harmony in the room. It was the only hope in a future where artists sleep rough and starve. He placed the music sheets he had just finished on the wooden cutting board, with onions and vegetables, for her.
The cook – who was a loving mother to them both – opened the oven from time to time, inspiring hope in everyone’s heart; the singer would sing beautifully louder, and the poet’s writing would improve. If the goat panicked and tried to break free, the cook would bring her a couple of clover sticks in a beautiful bouquet. For it was everyone’s duty to calm the goat, who could smell the roast of her billy, and create a lovely ambiance for her. But the cook’s relationship with the goat was unequalled, even by the singer’s relationship with the poet…She even felt as though she was marinating slices of her own flesh while cooking every meal for them…She never shared with them their banquets…and did not regret it, even if she became thin – as she is now – her bones protruding all over her body…Art Above All.
The proof is that the two of them placed the medium-rare roast thigh on the table between them outside and busied themselves cutting it up, while the cook was sitting on a low stool in a corner of the kitchen feeling the purgation that follows a Christian self-sacrifice, soaking her apron with tears, while the goat – “the artist” – as the owners of the house used to call her – was gobbling the sheets of music and poetry with great appetite!
Mohamed Metwalli was recognized as poet in the Arab world at a young age for his prose poetry. In 1992, he won the prestigious Yussef el-Khal prize by Riyad el-Rayes Publishers in Lebanon for his poetry collection, Once Upon a Time. He was selected to represent Egypt in the International Writers’ Program, at the University of Iowa in 1997. Later, he was Poet-in-Residence at the University of Chicago in 1998. He compiled and co-edited an anthology of Off-beat Egyptian Poetry, Angry Voices, published by the University of Arkansas press in 2002. He published his third collection The Lost Promenades in 2010 by the independent al-Ketaba al-Okhra publications. The same collection was republished by the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO) in 2013. In 2015, Afaq Publishers, published his collection, A Song by the Aegean Sea.
While in the process of being fucked from behind, how and whether you rotate your pelvis, to either work with or against the current and momentum of the insistent grunts arriving to your hearing left ear first, can and will have an effect on your own enjoyment of the process of being fucked from behind.
if your mind is on the dishes
whether there be a mountain
or molehill of them
if your mind is on what you have to do
this summer or next summer or what you should have done
thirteen summers ago
and how long has it been, anyway, that that rip
in your new, expensive
—like, life-purchase-level expensive—
couch has been there?
if your mind is hopping jerkily
around anywhere it shouldn’t be
Bring it back to where the sphincter of your asshole is sucking at where it is being fucked from behind by throne_shaker2 and focus, focussss, breathe. Remember the Cosmo mags you and your sister read together though you’d likely been old enough that the two of you shouldn’t have been reading things like that together anymore, and once on her last visit from Cairo to New York and while breaking the pretentious black wax around the neck of the second bottle of whiskey into crumbles she’d asked you if maybe you thought that was part of why you’d turned out this way, hadn’t you always been a little you know, too close to your sisters?
But leave your sister and stale whiskey talk behind and bring your errant mind back to the content and not the context of your Cosmo memories and remember how often the sex magazine world discovered, and re-discovered, only to re-re-discover, that half of all good sex is breathing
Swallow and bring your mind back.
Back to where it wants to be.
While it is being fucked and its puckered flesh is being slowly, then not so slowly, persuaded to open, communicate, in bold bald terms, how much more savagely it is that you’d like to be fucked please. Tell him you want nothing more than to be torn at your finite edges please, nothing more than literally to split where the two of you meet please. You tell him that in addition to his cock please you want his mouth please and his tongue please but most of all, his teeth. Consider, while he brings his incisors down to pinch two fingers of skin on the back of your neck between them, and while with the insistent downward force of his own head he plunges your face back into sodden cotton, that the conquer of this one small sphincter on your one single body, is enough, you’ve been told, to shake the very throne of heaven. And how is it, you think, that they could have known?
But then it’s——
ground control to Major Tom.
ground control to Major Tom.
may God’s Love be with you.
Though your brain is back to hopping jerkily all over the place while you are being fucked from behind with what now sure sounds like pretty crazy abandon from at least one half of the pair of you, continue making the noises you should be anyway.
This is not solely for the benefit of throne_shaker2. Fake it till you make it! Yes, yes, you can reclaim the space of your body! Yes, you can start to feel it again, down to the webbing between your toes.
While you are working to regain yourself, as you continue making the noises you should be anyway, it is good for there to be some kind of logic, some body logic, as to when you let a moan or a groan out, or when and how often you swivel your head and bite your lip as you look behind you at the person fucking you, with crazy abandon, from behind. For example, your enjoyment will seem much more genuine to the person fucking you with crazy abandon from behind if you moan consistently when he thrusts into you the deepest, or the shallowest, or the middlest; whatever the case may be, pick a depth and stick to it. That way when you are being fucked with crazy abandon from behind, you might appear to actually be enjoying being fucked with crazy abandon, from behind.
If you can do none of these things, whether you rotate your pelvis, or whether you don’t rotate your pelvis, will have little effect on your enjoyment of the process of being fucked, with crazy abandon, from behind.
Weed can help with this! Ask for a break!
There are any number of reasons people do this, any number of reasons people ask for a break while being fucked, with crazy abandon, from behind. One might for example need a break to go to the bathroom, assuming one is having the kind of sex that keeps bathroom liquids and solids separate from being fucked, with crazy abandon, from behind. One might need a break just to breathe, so overwhelmed might one be by the prowess, the pure athletic dynamicism of their super duper dynamo stud. One might simply be pausing momentarily before moving into a different, more comfortable, or less comfortable, or more open, or less open, or more frictive, or less frictive, or better-for-the-knees, or fuck-the-knees, kind of position. Though a break of the just-resettling variety will afford you less time and less opportunity to do what it is you actually need to do.
At any rate, if you are being fucked with crazy abandon from behind by someone who thinks of themselves, on the sex positivity side of things, as being Very Extremely Progressive and like, really very GGG, you will not need that much of an excuse. “I need a break,” you can say, and that will be enough. Before rustling out of bed to find the joint in its drawer you’ve prepared ahead of time, make sure to wait until it’s been long enough, make sure to give a few breathless pants in the general direction of your fellow throne shaker, before you begin, all of you nonchalance, to light up. The timing on this can vary but wait long enough anyway that the smoke break you are taking won’t be so obvious as a smoke break—there is nothing less sexy than the visible need to refuel. But make your stomach quiver some and throne_shaker2 will smile with the pleasure of conquest and you will maintain the narrative of having just very much enjoyed being fucked with what sounds like pretty crazy abandon from behind, else you will have to explain why all the moaning then, why, if it wasn’t really doing it for you.
After a drink of water so your mouth no longer tastes like skunk, return yourself to being fucked, with crazy abandon, from behind.
Negotiate the return to coitus however it is you must. If you like putting your face in the mattress and closing your eyes, leaving the point and process of re-entry up to fate, then put your face in the mattress and close your eyes and leave the point and process of re-entry up to fate.
He will take you, like so much someone else’s body.
your face to your face and your chest to your chest and
your stomach to your stomach and your penis to your penis and
your asshole to your asshole and your thighs to your thighs and
your calves to your calves and your feet to your feet,
down to the webbing between your toes. With your grasping hands reach for the skin of throne shaker behind you, and breathe, and breathe.
*The title, throne shaker, is in reference to the belief, located in some people’s understanding of Islam, that when two men have penetrative sex with one another, God’s throne shakes with the violence of His anger.
Mariam Bazeed is a non-binary Egyptian immigrant, writer, poet, storyteller, and performance artist living in Brooklyn, NY. She is completing an MFA in fiction from Hunter College, and is at work on her first novel. Mariam’s poetry and prose have appeared in print and online. She has been a Margins Fellow of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and an EmergeNYC Fellow at the Hemispheric Institute for Politics and Performance at NYU. She has been a resident at Hedgebrook and Marble House Project, and has been accepted to the Lambda Literary Retreat for summer 2018. Her theatrical work has been presented at La Mama Theater in NYC, the Arcola Theatre in London, and at the Wild Project in summer 2018.
Mariam runs a monthly world-music salon in Brooklyn, and is a slow student of Arabic music.
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 bitch, Motherfucker, Swine, 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.
when baba turns ancestor
will he be as he is now,
or how he was
before quicksand seeped into his brain?
will he be as he is now,
yanking at the locked doors of his car,
quicksand seeping into it. his brain
cursing the woman by his side, the son they made.
yanking at every locked door,
will his indignant howls rattle his grandchildren’s grandchildren,
pressing them to curse the women by their sides, the sons they make,
searing each of their mother-seeking-tongues?
or will the howls of his grandchildren’s grandchildren
meet, instead, the benevolent statistician he once was, a generous calculator
bias towards each of their mothers. Seeking tongues
to conjure his name, will his descendants sing him out of an exile he chose?
donia salem harhoor is an Egyptian-American interdisciplinary artist. She is Executive Director of The Outlet Dance Project. harhoor is a member of Sakshi Productions and is part of the Brown Girl in the Ring Collective. In 2016, she was an artist-in-residence with Swim Pony. Her poetry has appeared in Sukoon Magazine. She has her MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from Goddard College.
from A Dictionary of the Revolution
A Dictionary of the Revolution is a series of 125 texts woven from the voices of nearly two hundred people who were asked to define the evolving language of the Egyptian revolution in 2014. The texts were later translated from their original colloquial Egyptian. The digital publication of the Dictionary can be found at http://qamosalthawra.com.
The first time I was harassed, I was in, like, middle school and I was walking home from school. Maybe I was even in elementary school. I went to a policeman: “Someone touched me! I don’t know who!” I sat and cried that day. After that I got scared when I was walking in the street—really scared.
The street became a ridiculously terrifying thing.
Harassment has been around a long time. It’s been around for a long time. Girls walk in the street and boys harass them.
In general, harassment has existed in Egypt for a long time, like, since I was little. I know it, and I see it happening. My mother told me that they used to use pins on the buses, and that was in the seventies.
In general, harassment exists among all human beings: men and women. There are women harassing men and men harassing women. Basically all human beings, all around the world.
In our community, harassment has different names and terms. There’s harassment that’s sexual harassment, there’s leering, and there’s verbal harassment.
Many years ago, or some years ago, before it was a common expression and used often, harassment meant touching: a person touching a girl’s body. But then the concept evolved, so that just a look, just a word, just the catcall that we have been accustomed to all our lives, for a long, long time—the normal catcall that we always hear in the streets—that’s harassment. I see that as having entered into the realm of harassment.
And there’s also another kind of harassment that nobody talks about at all: women harassing men and boys in public buses. It’s pretty insignificant and we’ve decided to focus on boys harassing girls, but it exists.
Like, we have several kinds. But in Egypt it’s everywhere because we have so much ignorance.
Harassment indicates to me how much people… how much we have a problem as a people, like, as a country.
As I see it, this word should be removed from the law. Harassment: no, don’t mention it. If a girl doesn’t want someone to harass her, she knows how to make sure no one harasses her. I, myself, if I were a girl wearing respectable clothes and acting in a respectable way, no one would ever come near me. Let the father have a look at his daughter or his wife before she goes out; let him tell her whether someone is going to look at her or not. So that girls don’t blame the men! Don’t blame me if I’m walking and I find a woman—I mean sorry and all—a woman wearing something that says to you, “Harass me.”
Do I really know what it feels like to be a girl living in Egypt? There was a time in my life when I was scared of people—I had a kind of terror, like a fear or a phobia, of dealing directly with people. But I grew up. One’s character grows into the world, breaks in, wakes up, and that sort of thing, so ok. That became a memory for me. But the feeling that people up till now… I mean, for a girl to live, pretty much every day, with something like that… Without a doubt, that fear is hidden, and yet inside you there is something frightened, something anxious.
If a girl gets harassed, why is she afraid to go and say that she was harassed, or why is she reluctant to say so? Because her father will blame her; her mother will blame her; the people around her will blame her. “No, it’s your fault because of your clothes.” — “It’s your fault because you were walking the wrong way; you act wrong in the street. You don’t walk the right way. You don’t look straight ahead and head where you’re going.” All of that is blaming her, so she’ll endure the harassment and stay silent. Then, there are girls for whom that turns into a psychological thing, like, “I’m afraid.” Inside, it turns into fear and lack of security, and when she’s walking in the street she’s terrified.
It’s an obscene level of violence. There’s a true exclusion. You plant a seed of real terror in the person in front of you. It’s like, for instance, a person who experiences a kind of torture; a man who is sexually tortured at a precinct, something like that. Something inside you breaks. Maybe he’s physically ok, but inside he is… destroyed. You’re not hurting a person on the level of the body: beating him, breaking his bones, so that ultimately he can go recover and get well. No, you hurt him psychologically, and then the person has no trust at all in anything after that. It’s difficult for him to return to the state he was in before something like that happened to him. And ninety percent, or more than ninety percent of girls have experienced something like that. Because of that, we… the psychology of girls isn’t in the best state. Because of that, three-quarters, or like, the majority of girls are terrified. They are in a state of fear. Justified fear, of course.
You are doing an injustice, an injustice to boys, I swear to God! There are a lot of girls who harass boys. Not me specifically, I’m talking about a general category.
There was a well-known incident in the nineties—an incident of rape in Attaba Square in a bus, in a crowd, in the midst of people. In the nineties, they used to say that it was an isolated incident—that there was a direct relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, that he was her fiancée and I don’t know what else, and she broke the engagement so he wanted to hurt her. But at the time, I thought maybe there wasn’t a relationship between them at all, and that the media or society tried to fabricate a relationship, to change it from a public issue to a private issue.
You’ve got harassment, and you’ve got mob attacks, and you’ve got rape… and you’re still debating about whether it’s happening or it isn’t happening? And you’re still saying that you can’t say that a woman was raped, and that it was an incident of harassment?
Harassment really existed, but people weren’t talking about it much. So what happened is that people started talking about it a lot, and that’s something. It’s a step towards our being able to remedy a problem like that.
A while ago, before the revolution, people would confront the boys and hold them back: “Don’t do that sort of thing, it’s shameful,” and I don’t know what else. You were able to get your rights. Now, it’s widespread, and people stay silent and no one talks about it. And even when you catch a harasser, they lead you away from him and say, “Just leave him alone, don’t take him to the precinct,” and stuff like that. The role of the police isn’t strong anymore. So, if I go to the police, or if I go to people and say to them, “I want to go to the police because of what happened,” they’ll say to me, “There are more important things.” They don’t have time for things like that, and they won’t do anything.
The time I felt the most safe from harassment was in the days of the sit-ins. I felt like the men and the youth were making a wall around the women, so that they’d be able to comfortably move around and at the same time no one would bother them, no one disreputable would harass them. They really respected the girl, they really respected the woman, like, she’s a cut above the rest and they have to protect her. If a woman passed, they’d make room for her. Of course, that’s something we don’t see in the street.
There were groups of youth with a purpose who went out at the beginning of the revolution, both young men and young women. All of them were youth, under the banner of youth. There wasn’t a big distinction between girl and boy, and everyone knew their role. The girl knew her role in the tents, in medical relief, in securing the entrances. There was an integration of roles. And girls chanted like boys; there was no difference. Girls got killed like boys; there was no difference. There was sublimity. A spiritual and moral sublimity for the purpose that you’re working on: a state in which justice prevails, free of discrimination; freedom, equality; and all of those beautiful, noble values that the youth dreamed of.
In the eighteen days, there was no one harassing, and young men sat with girls and everything was just perfect. Everyone was respectful.
Why wasn’t there any harassment in Tahrir Square in the time of the revolution? Because we dealt with girls who were with us in the Square as our sisters. No, not as our sisters—as our brothers.
When, after the revolution, they wanted people to go back home again, and for no one to come back to the Square and that kind of thing, they intentionally sent people out to harass the girls, so the girl would be scared for herself and not go out. And that was an intentional thing.
Harassment is an old Egyptian thing and all that, but at times it’s a tactic for something political. Like, for example, in the 2010 elections, when for the first time… on the first day, when girls went out to the elections, they ended up beaten by men and there was a huge issue. How can men go out and beat up girls and tear off their clothes and harass them? No big deal. It happened in a lot of situations: in the time of, what do you call it, SCAF, Mohamed Mahmoud… and it happened in the time of the Muslim Brotherhood. It became a thing you can regularly use. It’s part of our nature as Egyptians.
To be accurate, it was a game they played with the people, so that they could trick people. They’d say, “People went out and harassed girls.” I mean, it didn’t have to be girls, they could harass anyone: a little kid. In any case, they wanted to ruin the day for people. They wanted to spoil their happiness.
How much the Square changed. How much the place where I lived and experienced all these positive things—community, people, bravery, fear… Suddenly, the Square became a frightening place, an upsetting place. And suddenly it was… I mean, harassment is like a tear gas bomb. It’s a thing used to frighten us, to stop us, to tear us apart. I mean, before that when a tear gas bomb was fired, we would all run—man, woman, child, Sheikh, Christian, whatever. We would all run. Now it was you, just you, because you have tits and ass and hair, because you have a vagina, just that. That violence is against you alone.
Harassment was happening to the point that a soldier who was standing and protecting the demonstration, or guarding the Square or whatever… if a girl passed him, he would catcall her.
The Square itself was different. I was anxious and uncomfortable, the total opposite of all the nice things I loved in the Square. I couldn’t feel any of it. And I hate that that is the last memory I have of the Square. Now it’s become something like, like… you know when you eat some really nice food, and the last bite is something really bad?
The idea of big gatherings: harassment was something essential happening in them. There was a very well known incident that happened outside the cinema on Eid, before the revolution by a year or two. That was always happening in big gatherings.
After Amr Mostafa and Talaat Zakaria and those people started saying that the kids in Tahrir Square were having sex, the kids that are… the ones who’re called what now, sees kids, sarsageya kids, shaneeba kids… they went and were like, “Yeah, there’s harassment and everyone’s ok with it.” Basically, they’re already sexually frustrated because of this country, because of what’s happening in this country, or whatever, from El Sobky or whoever’s in those films that they’re releasing, those dirty films they’re making. Those guys are sexually frustrated, so they go out and say, “We’re going to Tahrir Square where there’s harassment, and we’re gonna go to places where there are crowds and harass, and no one will say anything to us.”
There’s a difference between the protests that were happening and the ones that are happening now. The difference is that most of the groups that are going out now are summoned. They’re summoned through television, or by felool [remnants of the old regime], through loudspeakers that pass through the streets, making people feel like there are carnivals happening in Tahrir. And that, for sure, makes the whole thing lack gravity. It gives it more of a sense of celebration. The girl who’s going now is going to party, so she’s concerned with her clothes, concerned with her appearance, concerned with her whole look. If we recognize that harassment is already present in the culture of Egyptians, in general… it’s a virus. It enters a place like that, where the girl is dancing like it’s the end of… like they are unveiled dancers, and the progression is normal, for sure. It’s easy for him to start harassing with his tongue, and then to harass by his proximity, and then to harass with his hand, and then to harass by his gaze. The harassment comes from the absence, in the protests… from the lack of gravity of the situation.
Do they imagine that the Square is an entity outside of Egypt, where strange creatures gather who have nothing to do with anything? That there are bohemian people going out to the Square, doing bad things, so anyone who goes there should endure? Endure harassment, endure beating, endure murder, endure anything? And that’s what people were saying: “Why did she go there?” She should endure. — “Why did she go to the Square?” She should endure the harassment that happens to her. — “What brought him there?” He should endure being shot with a gun. — “Why did he go there?” He should endure being arrested, and beaten, and tortured.
Any issue that comes up in our society now, we deal with it all wrong. The problem of harassment is like the drug problem, like any problem in our community—we approach it badly. Even the media deals with it all wrong.
For example, there was an incident: the situation where the girl was beaten at the Council of Ministers sit-in. Putting aside the situation itself, the justifications that were given, the words that were pronounced, the way the situation was dealt with was really bad. Even the sheikhs came out, the ones who are supposedly religious men—at the time, they put aside the very fact that the girl was beaten and said, “What brought her there? Why was she there in the first place? And what was she wearing?” and I don’t know what else. Obviously, they dealt with the situation in a very erroneous way. You’re in a society with a level of ignorance that’s not negligible, so when people start saying something like that—“Why did the girl go there?”—it’s a justification. That way you’re… it’s like you’re encouraging that something like that will happen!
There has to be honesty. Honesty. Is this problem really because the girl’s wearing whatever, or is the reason that the boy wasn’t raised well, or is the reason that the two of them are both contributing?
From my perspective, harassment isn’t shameful for the boy or shameful for the girl. Basically, it’s that I’m sitting around unemployed! What do you expect me to do? I’m either gonna steal, or I’m gonna embezzle, or I’ll drink, or I’ll harass, or I’ll disturb all of God’s creation.
The idea is that the revolution brings about change—change in the conditions of the youth. They will have interests, they will have work, they will work and there will be… they won’t be unemployed. They will have hope that they can get married. It won’t be that the young man knows that there is no hope for him to marry, or to make a family, or to do anything with his life, so he harasses! No… the idea is that there must be a revolution… a revolution. Like we said at the beginning: bread, freedom, social justice. When those things exist and are realized, we won’t see these things, these things that are happening. There won’t be harassment.
“The young men are unwell.” — “The young men are unwell.” That’s always what we hear every time, and we never hear anything else. And the girls are always blamed.
I see that the absence of law plays a role. That’s one of the reasons for harassment. Because the law says that you have to bring two witnesses, and so on. That means that if someone harasses a girl when he’s walking alone in the street with her, it’s alright—there’s no problem at all. Of course, the absence of security. Certainly all that exists right now is just a show and nothing more.
There is no straightforward law that criminalizes harassment. There might be… I understand there is a law that could be used, or a fragment of legislation, a binding fragment… but unfortunately, from what I understood from talking with a lawyer, it isn’t enforced.
The harasser: who is he exactly anyway? He’s a moronic guy, empty, maybe sitting around bored with his friends. He’s someone who forces his power on you, or his strength on you. What does that mean? Like, what kind of girl are you going to harass? A girl who’s afraid of you; a girl who’s doing something that puts her in a weak position. I mean, if a girl is wearing something short, if she’s doing something that differs from what the rest of society is doing, the society itself looks at her as ridiculous. So he thinks of her as in a position lower than him.
Harassment won’t end in Egypt, in my opinion, until there are men, and those men have machismo and are real men. And it won’t necessarily be that as long as she’s someone I don’t know, that I’m not related to, I’m allowed to look at her or touch her.
Look man, now there isn’t even that bit that says I listen to my dad because he’s my dad. I mean, they’re cursing their dads, they curse their moms. No one is close to God, especially when their mom and dad aren’t. When the dad doesn’t know God and he doesn’t pray the mandatory prayers, and he’s just sitting at the coffee shop playing with this guy, talking to that guy, and hanging with this girl—look and see how the kid’s gonna turn out! Of course he’ll turn out like his dad.
Of course, morals aren’t just for boys; they’re for boys and girls. I mean, you see trashy clothes now, you see things you wouldn’t believe, for real! I mean, you… I swear to God I’m repulsed by what I see around. Real trash, but God help them, God help the boys and their families, all of them, bring them closer to Him. I imagine if those boys started to notice God, I swear to God they’d be afraid to do anything like that. They’d shy away from it. God help us and help them.
People understood freedom wrong. There’s a hair’s breadth… a hair’s breadth between freedom, and filth and boorishness. I want people to understand that. Like for instance there’s a girl who says, “It’s personal freedom for me to wearing leggings and a t-shirt,” and the t-shirt is practically above her belly button. This was someone who was essentially walking around respectably, afraid that someone would talk about her. But after the revolution, freedom got understood completely wrong. And by the way, that’s where harassment comes from. That’s why it has increased.
We’re supposed to live free in this country and wear what we want! It shouldn’t be that I walk in the street wearing something long and I’m afraid, or wearing something short and I’m still afraid—wearing a headscarf and I’m afraid, without a headscarf and I’m afraid. That way, it’s just better if I stay home. I’d prefer to just stay home. And I won’t go to a protest, and I won’t demand my rights, in order to avoid the guys that are harassing me. We demand that we walk in the street freely, just like the guys who got their freedom in the street. We want to get our freedom, too. We’ll wear what we want, we’ll walk where we want, and the guys will take care of us. Because we’re in a country that is supposedly a democracy.
All of this, to me, means one thing: that what is happening now, everything is because of something called a State, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that there are people living with psychological damage that will take them ten years to recover from. So, I—with the terms, with the words, with the personal relationship to matters, and the public relationships to them—I’m unable to understand how there is a relationship between that and whether or not there is a State.
We have to know that harassment is a phenomenon related to all the problems in our society. It’s related to our upbringing, it’s related to economic conditions, it’s related to social conditions, it’s related to the educational system that we have—it’s related to everything. The phenomenon of harassment is like every other ugly phenomenon in Egyptian society, in that we cannot separate it from other issues. Let’s not talk not about who’s the reason for harassment, the girl or the boy. Let’s talk about it as part of the issues we have altogether, which cannot be separated.
Recently, they made a law, I’m not sure… harassment laws. That’s something really great. But I want us as a community to reach the point of progress where I myself don’t make these mistakes. Of course, we aren’t in heaven, we’re on Earth and all that, but we want to get to that point, where we ourselves don’t do it. You get it?
Amira Hanafi is a writer and artist who assembles multivocal collections of material connected to particular histories. She presents compositions from her research as digital and print publications, performances, and installations, most often working in multiple media within each project. Her work has been exhibited internationally, most recently at Spazju Kreattiv in Valetta, Malta, at The Lisbon Summer School for the Study of Culture in Portugal, and at Flux Factory in Queens, New York. Her texts have appeared in Index on Censorship, Ibraaz, American Letters & Commentary, Matrix, Makhzin, and Fence, among others. She is the author of Forgery (Green Lantern Press, 2011), Minced English (print-on-demand, 2010), and a number of limited edition artist’s books. Her work has been supported by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, commissioned by Rhizome, and awarded with the Artraker Award for Changing the Narrative in 2017. Born in the US, Hanafi has lived and worked in Cairo since 2010.
I abhor the sound of my parents
clashing their metal tongues
you son of 60 dogs
ya kelb ya waesich
3an abu shaklak
the language of wedding band inscriptions
hurled across the dinner table
a circus act of shabashib
aimed at my head
slice up my tongue
but leave my fingers
knives storming my bowels
like Napoleon’s cavalry after a trip to Egypt
running me mummy brown
after too many khodar
too much salata baladi
or just a sip of tap water
like I’m not legit enough
to hang with baladi intestinal flora
not baladi enough
so Baladi cuts me up
with her uncooked food
with her diverted water
and hydroelectric power
I abhor the sound of knives
slice up my tongue
bass sibou sawaab3ey
The day my hair tie broke
I yelled, “fuck!”
and cracked a wry smile
at the student evaluation
that read “unprofessional”
I couldn’t contain myself
I paid five cents for it
but breaking it
cost me my dignity
I couldn’t contain myself
The day my hair tie broke
my infant grabbed a fistful
of stray curls
tiny vice grip fingers
holding fast to her roots
The day my hair tie broke
the police pulled me over
I wondered if I’d get taken
I wondered if I’d get taken
The day my hair tie broke
I heard my mother’s voice
beat a frantic rhythm
inside my skull
“Limmi sha3rik, ya bint!”
but felt sexy again
for a second
The day my hair tie broke
I thought to myself, “Ana hummara”
as my locks scrambled
to swat their gnat-like calls
of “ya sharbat, ya amar”
from my ears
I failed to lick clean
the unsavory clicks on teeth
in Khan el Khalili
The day my hair tie broke
their dirty blonde mouths
yelled, “Brown Sugar”
and craved a taste
this body unleashed
is a threat
When my iron coils
broke half your teeth
I made sure to leave you
O Cairo cab driver
on the Autobahn
I know how much
you miss your
The Carpenter wanted a daughter
gamda, qawwaya like herself
with the thick skin of an oak
under her polished surface
a daughter solid and strong enough
to fell a tree in her hands
and craft from its wood
a chair upon which
Madame could rest her back
after a hard day’s work
The Carpenter’s favorite chairs
adorned Victorian salons
plump and dainty
coy question marks
over their curled toes
Madame planted a tree
of rosy flesh
smooth and crisp
falling not too far from her own
but Madame got a Willow
laden with silty water
Madame didn’t know
that every time
her head throbbed
The Willow would too
and pare her skin
that every time
Madame sought shelter from
the Cairene sun
that stalked her
The Willow would uproot herself
bent under the weight of her
to offer Madame her shade
But Madame had little use
for idling beneath
cool, weeping leaves
and chopped The Willow
with a butcher’s precision for limbs
and choice cuts
rubbed the wood clean
with 50 grit
embalmed it with varnish
but was surprised
that when she rested
against The Willow’s bones
in stagnant tears
sap gathering at the corners of
her splintered eyes
Born in Hamburg to parents from Cairo, Dina El Dessouky immigrated to the United States at age three. Dina teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she completed her doctorate in Literature. Her work appears in Mizna, Spiral Orb, and Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space, and Resistance (Inanna Publications, 2014). She is an Alum of VONA/Voices, The Quest Writer’s Conference, and Las Dos Brujas Writers’ Workshops, and has served as a resident writer in the Santa Cruz Recycled Art Program. She is currently at work on her first collection of poems.
If there’s an equivalent for black sheep in arabic i don’t know it
whoever You are i carry You like the moon carries the months
i don’t want to let You down and You wouldn’t imagine me
lost between calendars and a goofy tide
a ram and the sun play hot potato with my liver, the sun
makes to catch it, the galaxy quivers and my liver dries up
making it to her arms never. they sell it to a food truck
You eat me drenched in tahina on soft french bread
i wrote this poem seven times in stops, 3 times fast 4 times slow
traced with red skin your calligraphy, your cursive bones
too big to curse You with but the meaning of a kid
whose word is only love really.
this is the part where i can still be You,
but I couldn’t wrap my head around a peach, my jaw
chews the pit clicking kho kho khokh and you’re veiled
rolling eyes at a tongue that calls anything but mama
there is only one word in your mouth, and You feign others to get by
we aren’t so different then, there is an off-yellow-sickly prickly pear
You swallow every summer seed to flesh ratio phenomenal pebbles
find the hollows of your teeth hopeful for what might blossom
maybe you’d think i was silly and want to know too much
when there’s god so how can we be lost inside our own skin
the ram thinks me redeemable she etches into my side
a sun tattoo, rings of words I can’t read on my own
as i watch mute
there’s an equivalent for black sheep in arabic
and i’m sure i don’t know it
Nour Kamel is perfectly lit and writes things in Cairo, Egypt. Kamel works as a writer and editor, is a Winter Tangerine workshop alumnus and advisor, and has a degree in American and English literature from the University of East Anglia with a year abroad at the University of Mississippi. Kamel writes about identity, language, sexuality, queerness, gender, oppression, femininity, trauma, family, lineage, globalisation, loss and food.