A dark black hole and joyful nights of bliss
Caught between grieving former losses, and incredulously observing today's "absurd" reality, Noha's preoccupations reveal a marked will to reconcile past with present, as well as a desire to escape from both.
Courtesy: Noha

Seven years ago, we entered as individuals into communities of revolt. We joined one body that extended over streets and squares of dissent.

With each anniversary, the revolution is celebrated as that of all Egyptians. But this year, we have chosen to go back to the individuals, the initial makers of a grand moment in history. Through their stories we spend some time reflecting, looking into how losses and disappearances from that moment in our past continue to shape their lives today.

The happiest days of Noha’s life were in Libya, before the 2011 revolution. At that time, her world was still whole.

On the outskirts of Tripoli, Noha, 38, lived on a little peaceful and quiet farm, far from the tumultuous city with her two sons and husband, who worked in the oil business. On the farm, she planted molokheya (leaves of Corchorus), potatoes, paprika and tomatoes, taking joy in Libya’s flourishing green landscape.

“Most Egyptians believe Libya is nothing but a barren land,” she says dreamily. “But it’s full of mountains and plains, where you think you were in Italy.”

Being a loner, a sparse talker, she preferred the serenity of her chosen isolation. She even vehemently shunned the expat community that flourished in Libya at that time.

In her youth, Noha, her brother Karim — who is two years younger than she is — and their parents moved between the United States and Egypt, as her father prepared his MA, then his PhD, in training and management in Washington, DC and Ohio. Early on, she had to juggle her Egyptian, Muslim identity with an adolescent life in the US, which was not easy, she says.

When the family returned to Egypt for good in her teens, Noha’s estrangement lingered. This is probably why she became a constant traveler, a globetrotter, never refusing a trip to any port, as she relished the very act of traveling itself.

The many trips she took with Karim and her parents to Sinai or Siwa, once she was back in Egypt, helped her rediscover the land she was born into.

Sometimes they would take their little cousin Seif along. Eight years younger than Karim, Seif would look up to them, as brother and sister. Noha remembers Seif as an introvert, a sparse talker, like herself and Karim.

During many family gatherings, held mostly at her grandmother’s house, Karim and Seif would sit quietly in a corner, never responding in more than two or three syllables to the probing questions of their elder.

Lukewarm tears roll down her cheeks. Her fingers tremble as she lights up a cigarette. Smoke expands and disperses into the room. We linger for a moment in absolute silence. There are no car horns, no intense, unceasing noise from the streets of Cairo, as Noha lives on the outskirts of town.

She was traveling with her husband and sons, when the news struck her: police and military forces stormed the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in on August 14, 2013, where supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi had been protesting for weeks.

The silence lingers on as she stares emptily at the blank walls in her living room. Her green eyes then roam to the window, seeking refuge in her small garden, which is surrounded by granite fences and security checkpoints.

“This is not the life I imagined I would live,” she says.

At happier times, she refers to her small villa as a retreat, always filled with visitors and guests, who never fall out of favor with their hosts and spend hours at their mansion, given the effort it took them to get here in the first place. It  takes about an hour or longer to reach Noha’s house from the city center.

Selim, her 13-year-old son, and Ali, his 11-year-old brother, are almost as tall as their mother, whose short stature and girlish looks render her much younger than she is.

Noha gave birth to Selim in her mid 20s. She was breastfeeding him in the desert, she says proudly, as being a young mother never came at the cost of her passionate traveling.

“I cannot imagine going back to the city,” she tells me. Though, she spent a large part of her life living in the middle-class Cairene neighborhoods of Agouza, Heliopolis and Maadi. But she has come to eschew what she sees now as odious capital, as best as she can.

It is not only the traffic and the hectic masses that frighten her. Rather, it is the political transformation undergone by the city after what went down in Rabea. The dissemination of lifesize posters and grand portraits of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which occupied buildings, shops and public places, especially before the 2014 presidential elections, made her feel as if she was kind of violated; mirroring the violation she felt when one’s most sacred right, to exist, was violently stripped of her beloved kin.

“I remember there was a time when political regimes were crumbling, one after the next,” she says. “Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Like an end of the world scenario. Particularly after we fled from Libya, I dreamed of living in a remote land, far from it all, like in central Africa, in the midst of nature. I felt it would offer me and my family a kind of shelter, like a huge natural bunker.”

She looks dreamily out of the window, her eyes seeing beyond the electronic gate around the corner. Noha was not born rich. She comes from from a simple middle-class family. Her father, whom she reveres and who died when she was in her mid-20s, is originally from Alexandria.

Influenced by the culture of training and the workshops her father organized, Noha remembers that everything was up for discussion in their little household. A healthy atmosphere of debate permeated their conversation. She developed an affinity for philosophy early on, which she wanted to study. Yet, she could not afford the astronomic expenses of the American University in Cairo (AUC), where it was possible to pursue such studies properly. Neither did she think that she would receive the education she aimed for at a state university, so she opted for business instead.

“I still philosophize with myself, though,” she says, jokingly.

Sometimes she meditates or daydreams for hours, lying on her sofa in the living room on the second floor, which can be accessed by a winding wooden staircase right at the entrance of the villa.

Most of the time, music plays in the background, while she gives in to any thoughts that come to mind.

The walls are decorated with pictures of Akhenaton, the revolutionary pharaoh, whom she admires for his natural physique, and shaabi singer Ahmed Adaweya, as well as bookshelves laden with literature, philosophy and works of history.

“Though I love reading, I have not been able to concentrate for long periods of time lately,” she complains.

Titles by Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Lisan al-Arab and Michel de Montaigne present themselves to the eye. “Michou (Montaigne) is my favorite,” she says, referring to the French philosopher, with whom she holds long philosophical discussions in her mind.

The literary corner is dominated by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus and Franz Kafka, the latter reminding her more and more of the “absurdity” that engulfs her, especially that which she reads on Facebook, which has become her only window to the world, besides what her visitors tell her. Noha does not watch television or follow any news.

Libya was also like a Kafkaesque novel, she says.

She enjoyed listening to the speeches of Muammar Qadhafi, his bizarre talks on television, his overall strange appearance and sense for eccentric fashion. She still possesses a copy of his Green Book.

“I know he was evil and all. What I just cannot understand is how he stayed in power for so long. Every aspect of Libyan life bore his mark. Have you ever watched him speak?”

Her flight from Libya had also something of the “absurd.” Her husband Mo’s British oil company ordered the immediate evacuation of its entire staff.

Traveling to the Tripoli airport was a surreal experience, she remembers. “Checkpoints everywhere. Armed men at every corner. Their rifles pointing at our car. Ali asked me on that day if we were going to die. At that time, regime loyalists hated Egyptians for the revolution,” Noha recalls.

After extreme difficulties, they managed to snatch the last four remaining seats on a flight departing from the overcrowded airport, where havoc reined and distressed passengers stood in endless lines while gunshots echoed from afar.

Before she fled, Noha had instructed her gardener to take care of Gilgamesh, an old golden retriever who was smuggled out to Tunis in a truck. From there, he traveled on a yacht, then on a plane to Cairo, where Noha, who had by that time settled in London due to her husband’s work, came to receive him. She then placed him in a dog shelter in the Wahat Desert, where Gilgamesh spent the next eight months fighting with wild dogs over territory.  

Courtesy: Noha

Gilgamesh tiredly sniffs my hand when I visit, before laying down in his favorite corner to rest from the epic journey he took from Libya.

He is 10 years old now. Most of the time he sits quietly in the house, indifferent to what is happening in the world of humans.

His owner, however, has yet to lose complete interest in what is going on beyond her gates. Each time I visit, Noha asks me to sum up the most important events happening in the world outside, and when I tell her, she disbelievingly shakes her head and utters the word: absurd.

While we enjoy the last rays of sunshine on a mild autumn afternoon, her sons storm through the garden gate, pulling behind them a dripping garden hose.

“Mama, can we wash your car?” they plead.

After a calculated wavering and a smile that she cannot suppress, Noha consents, on the condition that they do not waste any water.

“Sometimes the neighbors’ kids join them. And I give them money in return. I want them to learn the concept of earning money, so they grasp that it does not fall from trees.”

Selim, her elder son, is the more sober one, shyer than his devilish brother, Ali. His eyes take in the world around him while his brown curls shake, as he tenaciously scrubs the roof of the car.

I ask her, carefully, if they remind her of Karim and Seif.

Instantly, she tears up. Then, she lowers her voice and mutters that Selim does indeed remind her of her brother. Her eyes come to rest on Gilgamesh, who lies obediently by her side, looking into the world with dog eyes that grasp all they need to know.

When I call her on the phone, she never answers straight away. She prefers to call back whenever she feels she can. The tragic news came to her over the phone.

Her voice sounds flat at the other end. Almost lifeless. She is back in that dark hole again. A term she uses for the depressive cycle that gets hold of her every once in a while, rendering her incapable of getting out of bed.

Yet, almost every Friday morning, Noha wraps herself up to meet Abdel Hamid and Malak, two friends fond of photography, like she is. They meet in the city center, to go on a photo excursion, either inside or outside of Cairo. They favor Fayoum-like landscapes, or old alleys in Cairo, like on that late autumn day when they opted for the city of death. They photograph everything that builds up in front of their thick lenses. An askew wall. A cart filled with rubabekya (used merchandise). A forlorn dog in an alley.

Sleep-drunken men with sour morning faces gather round a foul cart to have their meager breakfast. They watch Noha and her friends oddly, taking pictures.

“What are they doing?” one of the men asks. “They look like foreigners. They are Egyptians. What are they filming?” a man inquires bitterly.

“Salam Aleikum,” Abdel Hamid raises his arm politely and instantly strips them of their evident hostility.

Only once were they obstructed by police, says Malak. They were photographing in downtown when undercover policemen asked them to leave. Other than that one incident, people usually leave them alone.

“Except for once,” laughs Abdel Hamid, a huge young man, shielded by a big belly, who always entertains the group with his witty observations and light humor throughout their excursions. His full beard masks his facial expressions, as if he was a skilled poker player whose intentions you could never discern. His is 24, the same age as Seif.

“Once we were taking pictures in an alley, when a woman sitting in front of her building insisted that we were members of the April 6 Movement. ‘Lady, we are not part of any movement,’ I said, trying to reason with her. ‘We are just fond of photography.’ ‘I swear you are April 6 activists,’ repeated the woman. ‘And I love Sisi by the way.’”

Noha, who was hiding behind her lenses, abruptly stopped, Abdel Hamid remembers, then turned to the woman and uttered something that caused the distressed woman to curse them, so that Abdel Hamid had to drag Noha outside of the alley.

When they pass an old vendor, whose kiosk adjoins an ancient decrepit mosque, Abdel Hamid asks him whether he can take his picture.

The vendor looks puzzled.

“Take a picture of me? Why, son?”

“Because you look beautiful,” Abdel Hamid says, with a smirk on his face.

The old man laughs hard. “Me? Beautiful? God forgive you, son.”

After he consents and Abdel Hamid shows him the pictures he’s taken of him, Noha, who was drinking from a carafe chained to a public water tank and watching them in silence, decides to photograph the two of them together. It is these captured moments that help her process abstruse and equivocal impressions, that enable her to navigate through time, I think.

There are other ineradicable pictures stored in her memory that relentlessly haunt her.

Pictures of a heart rate monitor, exhibiting inexplicable diagrams, before coming to a complete standstill. A picture of a cat roaming through the corridor of the intensive care unit. Workers loudly fixing an air conditioner in the same hall.

Does she ever indulge in happier memories of Karim and Seif, I ask. “When we overcome the painful memory of loss and have mourned our loved ones enough to allow ourselves to resuscitate them in the shape we want to remember them by,” I clarify.

But she shakes her head.

“I cannot. When I come across any pictures of them, I swiftly turn them over.”

The pictures she takes herself are easier to manipulate, as she remains in control of their sequence and the connotations they evoke.

For hours, Noha sifts through her photos and albums: photos of Libya, her trips through the desert, people all over Egypt.

Her favorites, though, are those of the layali, which she has grown famous for uploading on Instagram, where she has hundreds of followers. Layali literally means nights. It is a term for Sufi music festivals or nighttime gatherings that might be held to celebrate the birth of a baby, a wedding or even the inauguration of a car gallery.

Courtesy: Noha

A few months ago, a foreign publishing house approached her and offered to issue a photobook of her photography.

The first time she heard of the layali was about nine months after police and military forces had stormed Rabea. She was devastated at that time, clearly not functioning as a normal human being. Her husband took a trip with her to St. Catherine in Sinai. That is when she met Nour. It was one of those random human encounters that would prove life transforming.

Nour is a former university teacher, a woman in her 50s and a mother of a teenage girl, whom she dedicates all of her time to. At St. Catherine, she told Noha that, years ago, she used to follow the “Sheikh” all over Egypt, and that those were some of her happiest times. The Sheikh is a Sufi singer who performs at the layali.

The poetic songs of the Sheikh, about perishability and the love of God, were not new to Noha, as she had loved to listen to them on Youtube every once in a while. But she had never been to a leila (pl. layali) before.

“I wish I would find someone to encourage me to travel to the layali once again,” said Nour.

When she called Noha a few days later and announced there was a leila in Aswan, Noha did not hesitate for long. A drowning man will clutch at a straw, she says.

On her first night, Noha found herself in a strange world that surpassed any of her expectations. She was surrounded by people she never thought she would befriend one day: Sufis, farmers, carpenters and wandering dervishes, living on what kind strangers would donate to them.

Usually, the two women depart after dawn prayers, traveling in Noha’s car to the Delta or Upper Egypt, and return with the first ray of sunlight, before their kids go to school. Sometimes they travel for days, as a leila could last for four nights in a row. Traveling is part of a leila, explains Noha, nodding her head to a Sufi song playing in the background, about a man who compares himself to a bird, whose wings and feet were clipped by love, so that he is neither capable of flying, nor walking anymore.

Since her first leila, Noha has been to hundreds all over Egypt. Her favorites are those held in little villages, as in Sandabast, in Zefta. There, a merchant organizes a leila every year in honor of his father in the wake of the Sayed Badawi moulid (a Sufi festival).

Courtesy: Noha

He sets up a huge stage in a small yard that can take up to 300 people and offers his house so the band members can rest before the leila.

When Nour and Noha arrive, the men greet them in familiar fashion. The two women join them on cushions spread across the floor and chat merrily with them, as if they were some kind of groupies. These men look nothing like traditional pop stars, though. In their grey and black galabeyas, they resemble more concerned farmers whose land did not reap enough crops this harvest.  

In a corner, a man is laying down, immersed in a deep sleep, despite the noise that surrounds him. In the other corner, men start to pray the night prayers with solemn faces.

After they are done, I overhear excerpts of a conversation between the tabla (drum) and violin players. They are speaking in low voices, almost whispering.

A few years ago, the tabla player lost his infant daughter in a road accident. She was run over by a car. After the accident, he called Noha on her mobile phone to share his grief. She only processed the meaning of the words after they hung up.

For months, she would see him on stage, drumming to the cheerful melodies of the Sheikh, crying in secret.

It was a difficult sight, she says as she crushes her empty cigarette box. How can grief find access to a place like that?

Then, one day, the drummer told Noha that his wife was pregnant again. And after she gave birth to twins, he told her that God had reimbursed him.

Reimbursed, she repeats.

Later, she was to find out that the Sheikh was a staunch supporter of the regime. He announced his support for Sisi on many occasions.

“If I had known this, I probably would not have went there in the first place. Yet, sometimes, you have to weigh the pros and cons and see for yourself if the benefits exceed negative,” she mutters, as she watches the smoke she exhales take up form into three dimensional shapes.

The layali helped her to reconcile, not only with herself, but with humans in general. It helped her to accept them.

Sometimes, you watch a man screaming during a leila, bumping into others, dancing violently. But the people let him be. He is like that, they will say, as if he were a child. There is a weird atmosphere of brotherly love there.

One can easily distinguish these sorts of men, crammed inside the tight hadra, the opposite space of the stage, where they are allowed to dance. There are those who ecstatically shake their heads to the right and left as if attempting to defy gravity, merely looking for some kind of kick out if it, a trance or ecstasy; then there are the devout dervishes, with their more disciplined head movements and pious facial expressions. Then, there are the farmers who excel in listening and digesting the mysterious meanings of Sufi poetry about the perishable nafs (one’s psyche or ego). There are also simple people who rejoice in the music, as if they were visiting a regular concert, and poor men who aim to gain a few pounds by engaging in the inexhaustible task of bringing new pieces of hot coal for the smoke-greedy men smoking shisha, and thereby covering the cost of their ride back home.  

And then there are people like Noha, their motives unknown, who sit motionless, as if glued to their wooden, uncomfortable chairs. I watch her nod her head slightly. Her eyes glance at the hadra, only to lower them when she crosses the curious looks of men inspecting her, as if she was an alien, descended from the sky.

Only once did she dare to join the dancing dervishes in the hadra. She was about to start the cathartic movement, when a young deranged man objected to her presence, by shouting non-stop at her, until she receded from her position. Since then, she contents herself with her place on stage, so that she does not distract the men, she says.

Courtesy: Noha

While we are sitting in the garden of her house, Mo, her husband, briefly interrupts our talk and discusses some family matters with his wife, before he borrows some cigarettes off of her, leaving her with half of her current ratio. He is a bald, broad-shouldered man who looks older than his wife, even though the age gap between them is little.

In November 2011, during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, where street battles raged for days between riot police and angry demonstrators in a side street of Tahrir square, Mo escaped death by a hair’s breadth.

He and Noha were protesting like the others, because they thought their presence would make a different and that they had to preserve the gains of the revolution.

While Mo was inside the crammed Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a protester issued a warning call that police were advancing. Protesters hectically started to withdraw and run for their lives.

False alarm, thought Mo. He shouted: Stand your ground! This cat and mouse game had already occurred several times that day. But the threat was real. And there was no way to avoid a stampede. Mo tripped and fell to the ground. Instantly, a second body fell over him, then a third and a fourth. It was impossible to lift himself up and he felt his breath waning.

Focus on the point between your eyebrows, he told himself, like he learned in a Yoga class. Then he passed out.

One of the inhabitants of a neighboring house caught on camera how soldiers dragged his motionless body and placed him besides a dead protester.

“I bet the soldiers were baffled when they checked my wallet, my ID, my bank cards and realized I was well off. I bet they asked themselves what I was doing there. Why I was protesting since I do not need their subsidized fuel or groceries, or any of the government benefits.”

He regained consciousness in a field hospital, near Mohammed Mahmoud, and called Noha, who arrived with a friend to bring him to a hospital, as his rib was broken and he could not breathe properly. At that time, hospitals were instructed not to treat wounded protesters.

I ask Noha if she was demonstrating with Karim and Seif during Mohamed Mahmoud? Or at any other occasion?

She shakes her head. No. Sometimes they demonstrated together, or each on their own.

But this time, I do not relent. After the fifth visit and tens of hours of talking, I push to know who Karim and Seif were. Where they lived. What they worked in. What their political motives were. And what they loved in life.

She ponders, then lowers her voice and says that Karim worked in aviation in Sharm El Sheikh, while Seif was an architect who had just graduated from university. They loved to travel, to Sinai and the desert. Karim loved hunting. Then she adds that they had no political affiliations whatsoever. They were revolutionaries to the core. They elected Morsi during the second round of the presidential elections in 2012, so that Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, would not come to power.

Then she falls silent and cries. I change the subject.

At our penultimate meeting, she does not hold back her tears as she gives an account of what happened the day security forces stormed the Rabea sit-in.

On that doomed morning, she was in India with her family. They had spent the day in a remote village and did not have access to internet.

When she checked her Facebook page later that day, she found out that something bad had happened to Seif. And when she hastily called her mother to check, she confirmed that Seif was dead, and that Karim had brought his body to the hospital.

Early that morning, Karim and Seif had spoken briefly on the phone. Their last conversation is recorded because Karim used to record all his phone calls.

“Why?” I ask.

“He was planting on land he had inherited from our father and worked with farmers whose dialect was difficult to understand. Therefore, he recorded the calls to listen to them thoroughly later.”

As always, Karim and Seif did not exchange many words. Karim simply asked him if he wanted to go. They did not mention any motives, whether they wanted to demonstrate, or help wounded protesters like they did at Mohamed Mahmoud.

Probably both, speculates Noha. They were against the coup.

Near Tayaran Street, Noha does not know where exactly, and does not want to know, amid the chaos and the hundreds of lethal bullets fired at protesters, Seif was filming the security forces when a bullet struck him, killing him immediately. Just like their last phone call was recorded, so was Seif’s death.

I watched the video of him dying, mutters Noha.

Karim carried his dead cousin to the nearest hospital. Then, he took pictures of Seif in the morgue with his phone, probably for documentation purposes. He had called their family and waited for their arrival.

No one knows why Karim decided to go to the same spot, where Seif was killed.

Noha can only guess.

There, a bullet penetrated his stomach, and he was carried to the exact same hospital that he had left a few minutes earlier.

“I hate this hospital,” Noha says, bitterly. “Half of our relatives died there.”

Shortly after she arrived in Egypt, doctors assured her that her brother would make it and that his condition was stable. But, on the third day, they decided he had to undergo surgery.

“Don’t worry,” assured the doctor, before they pushed his hospital bed to the operating room.

Issuing his death certificate was the most humiliating process, she says, while attempting to dry her tears with a soaked tissue.

She went by herself to the issuing authorities in Abasseya, where the clerks had the pro-army song, Tislam al-Ayadi (Blessed are your Hands), playing on a loop to the innumerable families that came to issue death certificates for their fallen kin.

The clerks refused to indicate the cause of death on the death certificate. Noha remembers a clerk observing her curiously, then asking her bluntly, whether her brother went there by mistake. She did not look like the rest of the people there.

She stops talking to collect her tissues, now wet with tears, and throws them in the garbage. Then she peers out of the window. “The weather looks nice outside. We should go out for a walk,” she says.

But she returns to her seat on the couch and lights up another cigarette, then recounts the night of the aza, the funeral service at the mosque, where her relatives had unashamedly asked out loud during the Koran recitation, why Karim and Seif had gone to Rabea. Were they not educated in foreign schools, they asked. Mobile phones rang out loud, playing the pro-army song, Tislam al-Ayadi.

“My problem is that I never went off, I never vented some anger and shouted. I would have felt much better, I think.”

“So many times I tried to picture the face of their killers. It is horrible not knowing who killed your brother and cousin. What really ticked me off was the idea that I could bump into him in real life and, not knowing his true identity, I could be nice to him. I do not think of it that often anymore.”

During our last meeting, we talk about the revolution, about the country in general, locked up activists and those who left the country.

I search her eyes for any signs of regret, for a longing to undo everything that has happened, to return to a pre-revolutionary state of stagnation. But she firmly asserts that she believes full heartedly in the revolution, that the revolution was an ideal, pure and good.

She lights up her last cigarette during our meeting and says that, after our last conversation, she remembered incidents that she had blocked from her consciousness, like the last time she met Karim at her mother’s house, and the premonition that befell her, indicating that something terrible was about to happen to him.

During their last phone call, while Noha was still in India, Karim called her to deliver the news that Seif was dead, then hung up before she could say anything.

It is dark when we step outside her house. At the gates of her villa, I mention that this was the first time she mentioned Karim and Seif without crying. It takes her quite an effort not to give in to the stampede of tears that instantly begin to build up, and she unexpectedly succeeds.

I awkwardly say goodbye to Gilgamesh who sees me off with his big, sad eyes that have already witnessed enough grief, for his short dog life.

I am about to undertake a long trip with my family, she says.

I will also travel, I say.

We briefly exchange our routes and promise to get into touch when we come back.

She closes the door and I walk, exhausted, to my car. I see Selim and Ali darting off on their bikes, each carrying a rucksack on his back, as if they too were about to undertake an evening journey of their own.

“Selim, wait for me,” cries Ali to his elder brother, who has sped away. They disappear into the night.

It is them I think of while I drive the long road back to Cairo, on a highway lit only by a half moon, which nonetheless channels enough light to show me the way, amid the darkness that surrounds us.

Sherif Abdel Samad 

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