Today sees the publication of a book I never intended to write. With these words a circle that began in this newspaper in July 2013, closes.
Before Abdel Fattah al-Sisi we had the image, we had clarity. A video could show what words never could – the bullet from a gun, the tread of a tank, the way a body hangs limp in death. But in the confused dissembly of the summer coup things changed. As the country pulled towards the twin poles of the Army and the Brotherhood nuance and history and truth all fell victim to their competing narratives.
Videos of violence against revolutionists were decried by those who had wished those same beatings on them. Counter-revolutionary channels stole images of police assaults and repurposed them to call for the restoration of police power. Clips of army murders were relinked and revived by those who had been complicit when the shots were fired.
In the Spring we (the Mosireen Collective) released two videos close together. One, accusing Brotherhood cadres of torturing men in a mosque in Moqattam, went quickly viral, topping 100,000 views within a day. Another, an investigation into an Army soldier’s killing of a young boy, a sweet-potato seller named Omar Salah, sat untouched, unviewed.
I would not have chosen those results.
But images are uncontrollable, embedded videos and linked posts can be made to speak in slippery ways, youtube clips are downloaded and remixed and repurposed. The complexities of a moment can be shorn so easily from an image, the long view lost in the shallow depth of field.
And so it was a twist of fate that Mada Masr was launched on June 30th 2013 – the day that Sisi so skilfully used to ride into power. Within ten days I contributed my first article.
Four years have passed since then. I only really worked on one film in that time, a film of a poem that can’t be forced into a position other than its own. Instead I have been writing. Mostly, in my head, I am writing to Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been imprisoned for most of those years. I have been writing the book of the revolution’s years of video and clarity and drive. I have been writing the book of the revolution’s years of reflection and doubt. I have written one fraction of the history that we all share. I didn’t intend to, but it happened. So here we are, back in Mada and still living in the long shadow of that summer. Here we are, and here is the first chapter of The City Always Wins, the book that began here those years ago:
October 9, 2011
She stopped counting the dead an hour ago. These corridors are so compressed with bodies and rage and grief that something, surely, is going to explode. Everywhere are the cries of a new loss, a shouted question, a panicked face, a weeping phone call. They are dead, they are dead, they are all dead. The hospital’s morgue is full. It was not built for this. There are twelve people locked in this infirmary with her. Eleven are dead. She can hear their parents through the thick metal door. We must bury them now! Tonight! Eleven inside, at least four still coming, ten in another room, who knows how many more still to come, how many still running from the army? The coroner is coming. Just another hour. Please wait. Eleven here and a woman sitting on the floor, clutching a man’s limp fingers to her breast; her face runs with tears. His eyes are closed—her husband, her brother, her beloved—his clothes are ripped and bloodied from the serrated metal of the tank treads. His chest is covered with the embroidered face of Jesus. Eleven in here, in this room getting hotter with every minute, and how many more are coming? How long will the killing go on? How long will we be locked in this room whose air is thicker than any air ever breathed before, whose every atom is death? Blocks of ice are melting between the bodies of the fallen, vapors whispering off the flesh of the silenced. She breathes deeply. This room. This tiny room where every breath breathes in the dead. We will carry you forward. We will carry you in us. Breathe in. Nafas. Breathe in. Nafs. These molecules of scent rising from your bodies, your final offering to the upper world. I will breathe you in. I will carry you in me.
“We must bury them now.” A man’s voice. Mariam can hear shreds of the shouted argument slipping through the door. “Justice is for the next life. Leave justice to the Lord. We must bury them now.”
Breathe in. Smell the fruit, sweat, dust of your brothers, sweet like blood, heavy with the coming rot. Soon the sun will come. Breathe in. We are together now. We will make them pay.
“But”—a younger voice, polite, frustrated—“if we have no autopsies, no proof, the army will deny everything.” Mariam recognizes the voice as Alaa’s, the first person she saw in the hospital, the curls of his hair framing his face as she had seen it on television. “We need the autopsies for justice.”
Breathe in. Be strong. We will get justice. Be strong, be strong for this woman whose name you don’t yet know, for her tears, for her beloved. Ask her her name, if she needs anything. She needs her husband to wake up. Leave her alone. Ice. We need more ice. Who knows how long we will have to keep the bodies from their burial. Breathe in. Breathe in the heavy air curling in your lungs, settling in their passageways, coating them forever with this night. These bodies will become what the mind cannot forget.
“What right do you have to say the word justice? What justice? What justice? There can never be justice, don’t talk to me of justice, don’t insult me with words. My son is dead. My son is dead inside and we talk of justice? What justice for the poor? For the weak? For the Copts? There can never be justice. What justice? How will you get justice? The priest says we must bury them now, now before the dawn. Forget about justice. Forget about autopsies. We must bury our children.”
“Please. Let’s be calm.” Another voice, a woman’s, low, with great authority: “My brother’s inside next to your son, sir. These are their friends. They trusted them. They made the revolution together. We should listen to them.”
“And we see now what your revolution brings us.”
The march was to Maspero. To the state television and radio building. The army opened fire. No hesitation. They crushed people under their tanks. How many dead are there in rooms throughout this hospital? How long until they come for us here? Outside the gates a crowd waits nervously. Will the army come to seize the bodies filled with military steel and dispose of the evidence? Mariam ran from the bullets and hid in a building and carried a young man’s bleeding body into the back of a car and pressed on his wound with her shirt and told him it would be okay and brought him here, to the Coptic Hospital, and then a doctor took him and left her dazed in the fluorescent corridor.
“Mariam,” a voice said. A doctor. A friend of her mother’s. “Are you okay? Yes? Come with me. The morgue is full. We’re using a ward. I need someone in there. To keep people out. Can I ask you for that?”
They paused before the infirmary. ere would be no stepping back through this door. There would be no unseeing. She turned the handle.
The woman with her beloved’s hand to her chest has not moved. Mariam pulls her phone out of her pocket. Flat. Where is Khalil now? She left him. They carried the injured man together, put him in the car. Go, Khalil said. There’s no room. I’ll find you later. She turned back and saw him, his white T-shirt brown with drying blood, heading back into the field hospital. Where is he now? Is he outside somewhere, among the families of the dead? Go find a charger, some water. Go get this woman some water. Ask her if she needs anything. No, no one can give her what she needs.
Outside, the woman’s low voice, again, its authority heavy with belonging and loss and patience, is slowly turning the families. Yes. Yes. We must fight. We will have justice. Grief by grief the voices join together into a shield of shared purpose. there will be no swift burial of bodies and truths. There will be autopsies. There will be evidence. There will be justice.
Mariam steps out into the corridor. The world is calmer now. The sun is rising. She looks for Alaa but can’t see him. The floors are lined with people sitting against the two walls, waiting, still, for the coroner or the attack or whatever’s coming next. She walks down the center of the corridor, looking for water. The air is thinner, she feels it moving against her cheeks, her lungs reach for it greedily but she tries to keep her breaths shallow. Out of respect.
In the hospital courtyard a young woman wearing a black hoodie sits with an open plastic bag full of water bottles.
“Could I get one?” Mariam asks.
“Yes, of course,” she says, handing her one.
Mariam sits down on a low, dusty wall. An older woman wrapped in black sits in stillness. “You’re good kids,” she says in an almost silence, almost to herself. “My son . . . maybe you know my son? His name is Ayman. He’s . . .”
Mariam waits, doesn’t say anything.
He is inside. She knows. Ayman is inside, under the ice. Again and again they’ve come for us. Once a month, every month with clubs and masks and guns and boots and bullets, again and again and again and for what? Mariam moves closer to the woman, gently placing her hand on her shoulder as new tears swell. “My son . . . he . . . he said he came alive in Tahrir.”