Many and no words: Samir Halawa (1956-2014)

Today is the 40th day since you died. I could say that I’m getting used to it, but you know I’m not and never will. You were a lens through which I could look at this city in which I live. Cairo. And the country, and its history, within which this city unfolds: Egypt. We met seven years ago, but we both know we met decades ago, and that I was your son too. What a surprise to meet you in the way I did. To be divided by a language that even after 13 years here I cannot use to express nuance and detail. We both know the reasons for this, and no apologies were necessary in our relation. At any rate, we never needed words.

The most beautiful thing for me was precisely our silence. That we were obliged to speak another language; that I was obliged, and you too, to communicate with our minds, and our expressions. In a world so damaged by language, where language is so often inadequate, we passed into another arena, where nothing was not understood, and where indeed multiple levels of meaning unfolded, because we could speak with the slightest of gestures, and mostly simply through the eyes. And so when we laughed we laughed a pure laugh that could never be shared among those whose connection in language was pure, because language never got in the way; it wasn’t ever a filter in our human experience together.

When you died I said to one of our mutual friends, a writer and a great writer at that, that I wanted your life to be marked. That someone must defend you, and publicly. You were not under attack personally, neither in life nor in death. But the kind of person you are is fast disappearing from the landscape, and I wanted you to be remembered. He wrote for you, and probably you saw it. But I want to write for you, too. Because your life is something Egyptians need to think about, and never forget. And you know me, Samir. I will speak politically, and even make clear what, maybe, I was silent about in the last months of your life. Because at the end we disagreed. But I speak to you with the greatest respect; to pick up your soul and carry it further. Because you and all Egyptians deserve that and more.

I remember the years of devastation. You wrote vast poems about the ruin. In your life you neither over-compensated, as if to pretend it wasn’t there, nor bemoaned your fate individually, or that of Egyptians. You were resolute, defiant, satirical, and profound, and in keeping with the great stream of Egyptian existence that used to drop my jaw at its patience, its capacity for suffering, and its trueness. Never once did you lose your dignity, and never once did you make a sign of it either. You understood the nature of the Mubarak years: a frontal attack on the people, for whatever (I would say geopolitical) reasons. You refused in the name of something essential; something revealed in your relations with others, and in your endurance. Because you knew I could see it, we could share silence so easily.

When the uprising first began, I knew you were in the front lines of it. And indeed you were. Virtually every day, long after the many destitute, like yourself, had turned in themselves against the idea of revolution, because it brought no immediate benefit, you were there denouncing authority, and defending the life of the people. They called you “the general” in Tahrir. The youth. And you were shot. They shot your “good leg.” This alone was indication that justice was not yet alive on the national scene, and indeed we know too well it wasn’t. You refused to abandon the youth when they were being gassed and murdered, while others had nothing but words of condemnation for them — thugs, hooligans, whatever they said of them. You never retreated from the harsh edge of the struggle.

But while I loved you entirely, and I know that you understood me, that day, after June 30 (was it July 26?) when you came to my home directly from Tahrir, with a picture of Nasser and a picture of al-Sisi on the same banner… this day hurt me. We didn’t discuss, but for a few seconds. And we didn’t discuss until you died. And while on some levels I understood, this is what I wanted to say to you: the Egyptian people are too grand, too mature, and too decent, for a military state. And so when will something other happen? If it’s not today, will it be tomorrow? The hammer blows you endured in your life — you and millions — had come from that system. Can we say there was a revolution and end up with the same?

You know me and know me well. I’m not talking about patience with what some now call, perhaps correctly, religious fascism. And democracy, to me, is not reducible to elections. I don’t take this understanding, either, from Locke: that it is the right of the people to rise up against tyranny, however it enters the political and national field. For me, it is an ethical right that has nothing to do with political rights. The people have the right to change their minds, and adapt to conditions as they see them. So I deem conservative those who say, “He was elected.” I’m not interested in this argument. We both know the conditions of the country prior to, and around, June 30. The question is: what next?

I remember telling you, I think in April 2011, when likely it was already too late, that the revolutionary forces should seek to establish alliances with the youth of the Islamist movement, because that youth were not necessarily inflexible and unable to bend and to understand that Islam is not — and never was — a rigid, singular system for all time. That Islam expresses some aspects fundamental to human life itself, and as we know, was centuries ahead of its peers — as a system of thinking — when it emerged, at least as understood in terms of the evolution of human thought about how, and by what ethics, we can live together. As I always said, Islam is a social reality. I know you understood this. But you dismissed at this time the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood would gain formal political power, and at that time I understood the point. Everyone honest knows that they did not lead Tahrir in January 2011.

And then we confronted the errors. The fracturing of the revolutionary movement into 200 parties. And the emergence, I would have to say tolerated too much, of old political figures who while they may have spoken out earlier, did not lead the revolution either. The revolution was led by no one. And this, we know, was its strength and the condition of its success. But for none to emerge from those 18 days? This I could not understand. Hadn’t those who took the greatest risks not also, necessarily, made the greatest leaps? This is past history now, but you know I was against the celebration, when, fundamentally, it was a change in command: one we see again gathering now, and all the more sadly, because it is supported by an overwhelming majority.

It was the military state, Samir, that set your life to the stones and to the dirt. It is the military state that will maintain that system, as it managed to do, more or less, throughout the past three years. Because if there had been improvement, perhaps we would be somewhere else. The greatest error being the failure to block the Brotherhood from taking power: a foil enemy that could be — and was easily — dispensed with, while the fundamental lines and architecture of the system that has governed Egypt and Egyptians could be sustained. The faces are unimportant. But when they come from within the same institutions, without any reflection or atonement, it tells you much about what is ahead. The Egyptians have been suppressed as a geopolitical equation for the last 36 years. Nothing on this level has changed.

The question is about sovereignty. Sovereignty of the people, first and foremost. And sovereignty of the army, almost as important. Were it the case! But it isn’t, and so I address you in death because right now I have no alternative. Sisi, who you supported in the last months of your life, will win by a landslide. And now the State engages in a frontal battle against the main organized force that pretended to oppose it: the Muslim Brotherhood. I say pretended, and you know what I mean. The Brotherhood rode on the wave of the revolution, to arrive to power. Plain and simple. You didn’t think it could happen, but it did, and the results were always knowable. Because this is a regressive movement. No wonder Washington was okay in supporting it. But I know you know what I will say next: Washington will support any government in Egypt that upholds the geopolitical wager into which the country has been locked for the last 36 years. So there is no surprise. And there is no surprise that Washington maneuvers now to support the military, even though it knows that for all uses and purposes, it was a military coup — a limited one, because in reality the army never gave up complete command of the country; only on the surface, in the election result.

You abhorred Shafiq as you abhorred Mubarak. You were true, always, to the pure aspirations of the Egyptian people that were expressed in the very life of Tahrir Square during the 18 days of the 2011 uprising. What was your argument, and how did you arrive to support the re-imposition of a military regime? A military president. I close my eyes and I try to penetrate my memory. To imagine what you may say. But I know it would come as words, whereas the most important things we shared were without words. This is hard for me now. You lived your life in Bulaq al-Dakrour. While we lived in the city, you represented to me the life of millions. And in particular, a kind of Arab life before the onset of ruin. How did this prison uprising end up in changing the face only of the prison governor, and not installing the people, or a representative of the people?

When I told our mutual friend that I wanted someone to defend you, it was to defend your way of life. You were free, amid the devastation, and you retained throughout your life a terrible and beautiful humor. You remember when I would say that you were 99 percent white and one percent black? We would laugh at the black. We laughed at the endurance of revolution, before the revolution. Or not at, but with. Rene Char, that French poet of life, once wrote: “The color black contains the impossible alive. Its mental field is the seat of all the unexpected, of all paroxysms. Its prestige escorts poets and prepares men of action.” It is indeed in the black, in the irreverence, that perhaps Egypt, and Egyptians, will be saved. But when? He also wrote, and I dedicate this to you: “Leon says mad dogs are beautiful. I believe him.”

I loved you, Samir, with all my soul and I still do, and I have loved the Egyptians equally, because to me they were you, and still are. I want to defend them. In their geopolitical reality. I am not against the army: I am against a style of thinking in the army. I am against the police in all instances, but I can understand a police who defend the sovereignty of the people. It seems to me the revolution still has much to do. I hope you can convey this from where you are, because to me you are still living, whether or not we remember you. I remember you. I am nothing in this land but an observer. But I observed and will continue to defend you.

It would have been a complex conversation without words, but in the right conditions we could have made it. The army command doesn’t need to rule to defend the people. And if the people are primary, defense of the State — albeit a new State — is inherent. What we saw emerge was a class that essentially lived acceptably — in their terms — under the old regime. Such is the impact of a prison regime: I will show you death so you accept fever. But so much more is possible. Indeed, is immediate, but predicated on the full sovereignty of the people.

We have at hand forces that will take as their mandate a popular vote. But this is before the people stood up collectively as a people to assert their sovereignty. How to reach them is the same question as to how to reach you. I can only remind you: the military system was not comfortable. It entailed all the ruin you experienced. Why would it be different now? You are dead now, Samir. But something in you deserves life. It is the sovereignty of the Egyptian people that deserves life. This is not reducible to a poll. It can only be expressed when a full national accounting has been made, and when the army, and the police, are re-forged as defenders of the interests of the people, as they themselves define them, stripped of the pressures of an unequal international division of labor, or a geopolitical scheme that suppresses Arab development.

You know all of this. I am not saying anything you didn’t know. Today is your 40th day, and it is Valentine’s Day. This is the love letter you gave to me, and that I simply read back to you.