This way time becomes a loop: To Ali Shaath

Last week was Ali Shaath‘s birthday, his first without him.

Ali Shaath fi zimmat ilLah (Ali Shaath is in God’s care).

These were the words, at first an inconspicuous phrase like any other on my Facebook newsfeed, but with enough there among the letters to have me stop and re-read, once, twice.

There are many ways to say a person has died. This particular phrasing is common and I’d heard it countless times but somehow never in reference to anyone as close to me as Ali. The words made a thud more than a crash, as though they were cushioned. The letters in fi zimmat ilLah are rounded and brief, on the eye and the ear alike. Ali is, not “dead,” they seemed to say, but “somewhere,” rather, in the care of the Divine, and gone.

The softness carried on and my grief grew steadily, taking many hours to arrive at its first degree of fullness, and then days to do so again. To this moment Ali is for me as much in the care of the Divine as he is dead, and while I do not fully grasp what that actually means, I know that the reality of his absence is as a result more bearable than it might have been had I learned the news otherwise. And for that I am grateful, for me and for him.

Ali passed away in the evening of December 4. Ahmed Fouad Negm had passed away just the day before. A short time after hearing the news I caught myself humming the tune to itgama’u al-’ushaq ( the loved ones were united) as sung by the late Sheikh Imam. The song was built around a poem that was written by Zein El-Abidin Fouad but that is often mistakenly attributed to Negm, likely on account of his and Sheikh Imam’s long-time artistic partnership. The song begins:

itgama’u al-’ushaq fi sign al-qal’a (the loved ones were united in the Qal’a prison)
itgama’u al-’ushaq fi Bab al-Khalq (the loved ones were united in Bab al-Khalq)

I knew that al-Qal’a prison and Bab al-Khalq referred to places of detention where political dissidents of Negm’s generation spent much of their time and that this was a political poem. But I was struck by the — admittedly patchy — evocations of sign al-qal’a (fortress prison)  as life and  bab al-khalq (creation’s gate) as death, and the lovers gathered here as they will (again) there.

The evocation is warm and assuring, echoing also the hadith, yuhsharu al-mar’a ma’a man aHabb (a person shall be assembled [in the afterlife] with whomever they love). I imagined Negm and Sheikh Imam’s companionship resumed, their friendship now standing only for itself, free from the political struggle that had sparked it.

A day later, I imagined Ali joining them, being the lover of music and poetry that he was, and I allowed myself solace in the promise of us, his many friends, following suit.

Ali’s funeral was in Alexandria, my and his shared city of birth, on Friday, December 6. My wife Mariam and I had travelled there from Cairo the day before for a previously planned stay with my parents. The funeral prayer and burial were heavier for me than I expected they would be. Emotionally, my response to the deaths of others tends not to center around loss but rather a kind of a sadness for the person gone, a sadness borne of awe at the impenetrably dark and utter severity of death itself.

More than missing Ali, I found myself experiencing his death as though it was in some way my own. I had always related to him, but it was at his burial that I realized the extent to which he represented in his life and in his person so many things that were so inescapably and genuinely important to me.

The morning after the funeral I awoke to the cool, scentless Alexandrian air and a bright, sunless sky. I felt at ease, with little on my mind, fatigued, it seemed, from the previous day. It was only later, in the evening, that I realized I had dreamt about Ali.

In the dream we were seated in a circle, myself and several programmers, Ali’s preferred brand of co-conspirator. We had been struggling with a kind of algorithmic challenge and there was slowly emerging the possibility of incorporating into it a certain metaphysical quirk whereby our project would, to our delight, operate in perpetuity.

As we realized this Ali appeared at the center of our circle, grinning and full of that uniquely free-flowing and infectious excitement he was known for.

“But of course! It’s obvious, because this way time becomes a loop,” he said, tracing with his hand the perimeter of our circle, “so the future feeds into the past and into the future again and so on …”

On the evening of Ali’s passing, Mariam and I had gone to see Sondos Shabayek and Mona El Shimi perform the BuSSy Project‘s new show at the Rawabet theater. I later learned that Ali and Ranwa had themselves planned to attend. The show’s monologues on love, beauty and womanhood were interspersed with musical interludes, one of which left me spellbound.

After the show I approached Ayman Badr, the show’s musical director, and told him. He shook his head in concurrence and told me the piece was from a contemporary cover of “Ya Bayy Mariam,” an old Palestinian wedding song.

Because in Egypt, as in much of the Arab world, people celebrate saints on their mawlid, their day of birth, I have always found somewhat peculiar, if philosophically elegant, the practice, further east, of celebrating saints on the day of their passing, as is famously the case with Jalaluddin Rumi in Konya and Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. The celebration is referred to as an ‘ursa wedding, denoting the saints’ joyous union with their Beloved.

The day after the show I managed to find the song and I listened to it on our way to Alexandria, as we prepared to bid Ali farewell the following morning. I had never before heard a wedding song that was so wistful, and in my sadness I sensed its evocations of ‘ursas-death, as loss, and I remember Ali with a prayer.

Here’s to you, Ali. To remember you is to dream, to play, to push, to build and to carry on.

Motaz Atalla 

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