The light is different in Zeinhom. The narrow street, arching trees and gentle slope of one of Cairo’s only hills combine to soften the bright, direct light that casts the city in her familiar monochrome. The light comes at you at an angle. Maybe it’s the hill. Or maybe it’s because I only go to Zeinhom early in the morning, to go to the city morgue.
Today we were there for Bassem Mohsen. He was shot on Friday at a protest in Suez. He was rushed to Cairo, to Qasr al-Aini Hospital. He was operated on. His brain activity was critically low but, for better or worse, people cannot help but hope.
He died yesterday.
At 10 am this morning people started arriving at the morgue, long now a site of struggle between angry friends outside and complicit doctors inside. Cause of death. If you win the struggle you leave the morgue with your child’s body and a piece of paper to keep their fight alive. But it takes time. Hours. The state feeds on our wasted time. Grows fat on it. The graffiti kids with spray cans showed up, as they always do. But this time they had papers, cloth and cutters too – knowing, after these long years, that they will have time to work on more complex pieces. They spend hours cutting out stencils and making the highest honor this revolution can confer: Bassem’s martyr flag.
“Bassem Mohsen; Suez’s martyr.”
A significant title for a city whose reputation is built on the resilience of its fighters.
The stencil cut, they start spraying his image onto the wall. One boy sits on another’s shoulders while two girls spray the lower half. The boy stumbles, but before he loses balance a man grabs him, holds him steady. He is one of a family sat patiently next to us on the curb, waiting for their own to bury. Beyond them lies a rusted shell of a car long abandoned, now filled with trash. None of them speak, and I realize that they are signing to each other. The oldest woman among them gestures a conversation into her phone’s camera. Silent words bounce between family members on either side of the street, cutting through our bodies and sounds. Their conversation exists on a different plane to our tumultuous world; its grace is overwhelming. For a moment I feel shielded from the indignity of the morgue before us. And when the graffiti kid slips the father, ever watchful, is there, holding him up. He points to an empty spot on the wall. Spray another. “I am with you.” But the can is empty.
Above us, again and again, is Mohamed al-Guindy’s name. The walls call for justice and threaten chaos and repeat his name and the day of his death again and again. The police tortured him to the end of his life 11 months ago. When his body was brought here hundreds followed. Young men chanted and screamed so loudly for justice that they fainted. And the highest reaches of the walls received a new name. Again and again: Mohamed al-Guindy. When we stood there that morning in February I remember a voice called out from below: “… and Omar. Don’t forget Omar. Please…” The young man with the spray can standing above us all nodded and began the curve of the ع.
Was that Omar Morsi the voice was calling for? Omar Morsi who was shot by the police that day in February? Omar Morsi whose brain they said was dead? Does that voice know that Omar Morsi isn’t dead? He woke up. He is better. He appeared in the hospital yesterday, hoping that Bassem would wake up too.
I cannot tell you anything about Bassem that has not already been written. We only met once. But we swapped phone numbers and he called me a couple of times. He had no reason to call, he was just checking in, seeing what was going on in Cairo. I understand those phone calls better now. Now that it’s too late to return them.
The day stretches on, as every day at Zeinhom is designed to. The day on which swiftness is needed more than ever is never merciful at this morgue. Bassem’s sister is kept in a perpetual state of weeping. His friends do not leave her side all day. A game is being played between the prosecutor’s office, the police station, the hospital and the ambulance service which is keeping Bassem in the hospital. It is eight hours before his body arrives to the morgue. Eight hours sat in cold indignity. People keep arriving, moving, smoking, crying. But one thing remains constant: behind Bassem’s sister a young man, a boy really, stands watch over her. He caresses her shoulder like a younger brother, but I know that they’re not related. I’ve seen him before. He was captured by the police. He was tortured. At an anti-torture rally his mother had cried out the crimes of the police to a watching crowd, had lifted his shirt to show the scars. He did not resist. He did not move until she led him away. He stared out above the weeping crowd, his eyes fixed on another world. He looked, that night, like he was beyond repair. But today, as he patted Bassem’s sister on the shoulder and scanned the crowd around her, something was different. Something in his watch was giving him comfort.
“Take care!” she called out. Bassem’s sister stood from her chair for a moment, pointing at a young man in a red hoody. “Take care of yourselves boys!” she pleads to all of them.
The families of the martyrs bear a double burden. They carry the weight of their children’s bodies to the grave and the rage of their friends on their shoulders. The loss is unaccountably heavy, but the responsibility weighs heavier on some. Dozens of young men and women crying burning tears will today, and for many days to come, respect the family’s wishes, will follow their instructions. Today it was decided there will be no funeral march. No further excuse will be given to the state for blood. But tomorrow, when the flag is a symbol the family can’t control, the burden will grow still heavier when another martyr falls waving it.
Bassem’s coffin finally emerged. His body wrapped and covered in an Egyptian flag was placed carefully in the back of car. Three buses filled up with his friends. They pulled away from the grime of Zeinhom towards Suez, leaving behind the walls now graced with another name to be remembered, another promise to be fulfilled.