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.
I hesitantly walk into the gym where Sarah made me an appointment for our first power lifting session. Even though I am confidently heading toward my 40s, I am never sure about working out in public, or of doing it under the tutelage of someone who continues to intimidate me.
At 41, and even before, Sarah Carr or Coach Sarah’s stiffness in real life, combined with her virtual popularity grown on the back of her sharp online posts, transpire a sense of confidence that can be intimidating.
But like journalism, powerlifting can be a risk-laden endeavor. So is trying to profile Sarah, a woman who leaped from the world of the former to the latter in search of a certain tangibility, a certain truth, a certain materiality that she didn’t find could be embodied in the ranks of language, writing and journalism. Instead, she turned her body into the new author of her life.
Walking amid bouncer-like bodies, with the sound of up-beat music in the background, in a gym planted right beside the Nile, I hoped to find Sarah quickly, in an anxious search for familiarity. But I haven’t seen Sarah in three years. Has she become like the other muscled bodies around me?
She has, but her face is still the same. Perhaps it even looks younger now as she wears her hair long. Or, perhaps it looks more chilled, given her change of path. She still has a pink sweatshirt on, among other pink possessions. She is still eating incomprehensible food for breakfast, all the while smashing vegan elitism. She still greets me with her habitual nonchalance and takes me straight to the shenanigans of fitness: measuring weight, height, body fats and what not.
Her training orders roll out as if from an officer, with a firm and steady intonation that doesn’t change much throughout her whirling around you as you struggle to lift while maintaining the right posture. She is precise and insistent on precision. She is also persistent, especially with someone with “hyperextended knees and an uncooperative back.” She applauds when we reach the right posture, a rare variation in her emotional pitch, shouting in her well preserved southeast London accent: “Yeaaaaa….that’s i’,” and that is the victory of the day. She also doesn’t hold back childish laughter at a funky move, and the only thing you can do is to laugh along with her at yourself.
Sarah, who has made a base for herself out of the gym, used to get bored every time she went there in London’s Croydon, where she spent much of her adolescence and early 20s. But the boredom was not specific to the gym. As she took on a variety of other exercise activities, from pilates to pole, all of which were centered on weight loss, she also got bored, until she identified what her problem was.
“There is no progression. How does it get harder? I don’t like the obsession with all these activities aimed at women and with being slim and of a certain shape. There is a limit on how strong you can be and for me, it all ties to this aesthetic of the woman as this fragile weak thing who should not look like a man.”
And so, in 2015, she started off with an online vegan bodybuilding and nutrition course, and then she was introduced to a coach, whom she spoke passionately to me about, meeting him in a traditional salit hadeed (literally iron hall, a space made primarily for bodybuilding commonly found in low-income neighborhoods). While being mindful to put on conservative sportswear, she comfortably brushed off the boys staring at her from beyond the iron hall’s window.
“There is nothing like this sport in terms of power, in terms of feeling that you’re strong, or in terms of seeing 70 kg fly up in front of your face. I can say that strength training was literally the first time I felt completely comfortable in my own skin.”
Today, at 65 kg, Sarah can deadlift up to 127 kg. To illustrate that to those of us who don’t think so much in kilograms, she can lift up to five pandas, or, a more relevant reference would be that she can lift two times her body weight. She has set her eyes on 143 kg as her next target. She is happy about the visibility of progress in her life, through its imprints on her body.
The goal of lifting more weight aside, Sarah has been taking her passion for power lifting to her community, building up her profile as a trainer one trainee at a time. Her gentle nudge to train me came in response to my proposal to interview her for a profile. She said she did not remember me mentioning physical fitness, save for running in protests, so why not join the cult? Indeed, she has spearheaded a cult, and she has her followers already.
One of them, Laila Marei, an architectural historian, describes her to me as “conscientious and encouraging.” In an exchange between them, Marei echoes what Sarah found compelling about weightlifting. “No matter how long it takes me to reach my goals, I have never had a more positive body image. You showed me what it can achieve and do and how strong it is and can be,” Marei writes to Sarah in a personal message. She also says that Sarah has been guiding her more holistically toward a healthy lifestyle.
Adding to conscientious, Radwa Medhat, another trainee and a social media officer, describes Sarah as an inquisitive trainer who tends to research questions rather than give flat answers, engaging her clients with her in the process. Like Marei, Medhat echoes some of Sarah’s thoughts that it was only in weightlifting that she found the perks of progression.
Is she challenging? I ask Medhat. “She can push you hard, but security comes first for her and that’s not very common among trainers.”
She is also sensitive to one’s psychological state and mental inability to engage physically, as Amr Abed, an actor who is training with her, says. At the end of one of her training sessions with him, she tells him good news about an upcoming treat in his diet. “You have one day when you can restrict your breakfast and lunch and then go crazy on dinner.”
Abed came to Sarah with a target: a picture of Brad Pitt in Fight Club. He needed to look like him in six weeks for a new role.
“She told me from the beginning that we won’t be able to get there in six weeks but possibly in six months, and I was happy with her honesty,” Abed says. And although it was strange at the beginning to go to a woman body builder, Abed was totally taken by the plan she put together for him. “She is smart. She sees,” he says, musingly.
Still, only three of her 15 clients are men.
But that’s an achievement for someone who has confidently, yet not grudgingly, braved through an overtly masculinized bodybuilding culture. “Everything is about getting bigger, huge, stronger, and its highly dependent on locker room humor, jokes and vibes,” she says. “And that’s unpleasant for a woman.”
While conscious of the highly gendered zone she got herself into, her imagination is constantly leaping to a place where gender fluidity is possible. “I take issue with aggression or strength being a masculine trait. I don’t think being myself is aggressive or masculine.”
“Strength is not a gender,” she says, referring me to Janae Marie Kroc, a transgender bodybuilder, who first competed as a male professional powerlifter, before coming out in 2015.
In moving to fitness, Sarah took more than just her body to another arena, but her personality too. For one, there is the acceptance of failure, an inevitable part of being in sports, that made her become “much calmer about things, and better at dealing with setbacks.”
In 2016, Sarah tore her anterior cruciate ligament while playing football. It was a new experience with vulnerability for her. “It gave me an appreciation for weaknesses. I’ve never experienced pain or limitation like that before. I had to use crutches and it was very humbling.”
“I think that I am quite a hard person, and I lack empathy sometimes. Now, I’m very conscious about injuries, and I have a phobia of injuries, and if they happen to my clients. It made me look into the human body more.”
Sarah is now centered on a plan to create her own gym, to make it “friendly and comfortable, where people come and enjoy exercise.” She wants “big strong guys to push the level up, but at the same time, I don’t want bitching in the corner about what she’s wearing or what he’s doing. I want my space to be gender friendly, not macho but strong, strong in the gender free sense.”
What about class? I ask her.
“My idea is to find a young kid who’s really passionate, to train him and turn him into a champion.”
She confides to me that every time she thinks she can’t start her own gym, she remembers Mada, of which she is a co-founder. “They literally started from nothing, so that’s inspiring to me.”
I walked into an Alexandrian courtroom in 2009, burdened by the heavy weight of my traveler’s backpack and my uncomfortable tendency to hunch my back. I recognized Sarah who, until then, was a prominent virtual persona, but more importantly for me, a formidable writer.
Alongside a number of human rights lawyers, we both, separately, took an interest in covering the story of Ragai Soltan, a man with a disability who was physically assaulted by a police officer inside the Alexandria Security Directorate. While the violence against Soltan was fairly arbitrary — police torture and mistreatment are systematic — and while his story is one of many, he was fortunate to garner some media attention.
Sarah seemed to have some close relations with the human rights lawyers and defenders in court, a world she planted herself in when she moved from London to Egypt in 2003 to work with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and then later the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Everyone arriving at court made sure to pass a greeting on to her. She seemed loved and respected. Her long time friend, Sherif Azer, who started his human rights career with her at EOHR, tells me how he looked up to her when it came to human rights, for her values were uncompromising. “She was the standard.”
She also had on a straight face, part of her brand, and my enthusiasm at meeting her for the first time was certainly not reciprocated. Yet, we developed a mini-habit of meeting following the court sessions in Soltan’s case. We’d attend the session and then go to the nearby Delices Café by the Cornish to file, her for Daily News Egypt and me for Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English edition. Besides a pleasant sense of professional camaraderie, there was a lot of repetitiveness: of court procedures, of writing about torture and of being a journalist in Egypt in the early 2000s.
But notwithstanding the repetitiveness, it was a different moment for media in Egypt, given the liberalization of the industry, the opening up of different platforms and the possibility of different narratives than those of the state in the early 2000s. And Sarah found a place for herself in this moment, a space in language.
I ask Abdel-Rahman Hussein, who also worked in journalism before dedicating his career to music, about what struck him in Sarah’s practice. “How fastidious she was in her reporting, borne by a genuine care for the people behind the stories,” he responds. Hussein had known Sarah for years, from the time of their work together at Daily News Egypt, and later, at Egypt Independent, the place where we all worked together. She is “very clear-headed in her approach, guided by facts rather than carried along by an emotive discourse,” he adds.
Sarah also loved covering court cases. “I like familiarity and knowing what to expect,” she says. “I also like absurdity, and if you want absurdity in Egypt, you go to a court. There is very little space for subjectivity. The judge said this. The witness said that. How can I twist that?”
She also thrived at producing eyewitness accounts of events.
She uses the word objectivity when we speak about eyewitness accounts and the choice to cover things that she can watch happening, the kind of veracity that she ultimately couldn’t have pursued a career in journalism without. While I use the word objectivity less, and while I may be more reconciled with the ultimate blurriness of truth, I found an affinity in how I describe Mada as ultimately a project of witnessing, of returning to a material truth and attempting to transpose it with the least possible mutations, at a time when staggering mutations are obliterating the truth.
“You write what you see,” says Sarah. “When you’re relating events that happened, there’s a purity there that isn’t in talking to people, and that is I think the strength and weakness of my journalism. I don’t think I got the full picture, but the picture that I got, I think was pretty correct.”
With her eyewitness account, Sarah managed to reconstruct the picture of the October 2011 Maspero violence, when Armed Forces personnel killed 28 people, mostly Copts, as they marched demanding the right to freely build churches.
“The two vehicles zigzagged down the road outside Maspero underneath the 6th of October Bridge and then back in synchronicity, the rhythm for this particular parade provided by the “tac tac tac” of never-ending gunfire, the music the screams of the protesters they drove directly at. And then it happened: an APC mounted the island in the middle of the road, like a maddened animal on a rampage. I saw a group of people disappear, sucked underneath it. It drove over them.”
The story is carved in my memory as a testament to how words are able to witness, and, in revisiting it in the midst of our recent conversations, I traced Sarah’s inimitable search for truth in her journalism.
Hussein pinpoints how her journalism doesn’t “adorn or embellish reality in order to shoehorn it into a palatable narrative,” and when a concrete truth no longer made its way through the vehicle of her written words, journalism became impossible.
There was another reason behind Sarah’s choice to do eyewitness accounts, and it is related to that mixed sense of alterity and belonging, perhaps typical for the offspring of an interracial marriage. “If something’s happening, I go and have a look. Partly due to curiosity, partly also because my journalism relied on visual stuff because of the language barrier and because I am someone who enjoys looking and doing more than talking. Part of it is being on the edge. I didn’t want to be part of it, as my status is a bit funny as an Egyptian khawagaya [foreigner]. It’s not my battle, but it is. Do you know what I mean?”
Foreignness is a sentiment that has traveled with Sarah since she was young. Born in the United Kingdom to an Egyptian housewife and an English librarian, Sarah’s sense of being different came to the forefront in Leyland, where the family moved in 1985, and where her mom was the only non-white person.
“For the longest time, it fucked me in my head. First of all, she had a weird name. Not Mary, not Linda, she’s called Nabila. No one else’s mum was called that name. I come home one day from school and I say, ‘Mummy, mummy, I can say the Lord’s prayer.’ She was like, ‘we’re Muslims!’”
Sarah didn’t hear Arabic spoken at home and had her hair dyed blonde at five. When she was able to have a say at the age of 12, she decided to express her Egyptianness through religion. So she went to a local mosque, where she couldn’t decipher what was being said, because they spoke Urdu.
At 27, she came to Egypt to study Arabic in Alexandria as part of her law degree at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In Alexandria, she lived the upper-class social club life. But then, as soon as the law allowed Egyptian mothers to pass on their citizenship to their children, she got her Egyptian ID in 2004 and was “ecstatic” about it.
But, in 2005, when she went back to the UK to do an master’s degree in human rights law at the University of Essex, she experimented with wearing a veil during the month of Ramadan.
“Spanish,” she says. “It looked quite nice. But I looked like a Jewish settler. It was my last flirtation with [religion].” Religion for identity, that is, not for spirituality.
And even though she seemed quite tight with human rights fellows at court in Soltan’s case, she struggled when she worked there. “All the laughing in Arabic and the film references that fucked my life. I don’t have time to watch a hundred films. I don’t have time to remember a hundred film quotes, and I can’t learn film quotes in English. I would be following conversations and then somebody would say “Khaled,” and they would all fall about laughing. It’s like a code, a secret code.”
Journalism was not so different.
“Part of the reason why journalism was always a struggle is that every day I had to prove my Egyptianness. I couldn’t make interviews work because not only am I not fluent in Arabic, but I don’t have that, like, putting people at ease thing. Every day it was a test, and every day it was a failure.”
It took some time for Sarah to settle with her duality as an Egyptian foreigner, and, although it was a constantly nudging inner voice, she swam against its waves when she covered labor issues, for example, the kind of issues that would rarely attract foreign journalists.
And in all cases, her choice to be a field journalist landed her in hot water, most notably in the violence that ensued after the revolution.
On January 25, 2011, the revolution came to Sarah’s home, as her house was accidentally one of the few spots that remained connected through an internet service provider that did not discontinue connection when a communication blackout was enforced on the nation in an attempt to quell the protests.
“It was really scary at that moment, when I could see the Egyptians on my Twitter feed gradually thinning out, and I was like, ‘Ok, I am still here. What’s going on?’ By Friday, we were still online, and it was incredible. At some point, there were 20 people sleeping in my house, and I didn’t know who all of them were. I loved it. It was a commune, with people setting up washing and cooking schedules. When they left, I felt really sad. The house felt empty. You would have loved it. People were sleeping on the floor, creating all kinds of things, with laptops everywhere. It was like Mada!”
I asked Mona Seif, one of the activists who landed at Sarah’s house in the period between January 25 and January 28, about those days. She describes to me how it became known in the community of activists and independent journalists that Sarah’s house was a safe space that was still connected to the internet. There, she recounts, activists and journalists would land around the clock after participating in protests to either take a break, charge devices, or upload texts, videos and images online. “It was lively,” she remembers.
Throughout the 18 days, Sarah didn’t write much. She was present, and joined the exhilaration but also witnessed some disconcerting scenes of violence. When the Battle of the Camel broke out, with regime supporters attacking Tahrir Square protesters on camels and donkeys, she watched from atop a building in awe. One day, she climbed on top of a phone booth to take pictures near the Egyptian Museum. A man in a leather jacket spoke to her friend about Sarah being a foreigner, saying he wanted to drag her inside the museum. Her friend managed to send him off, and she learned later that the museum served as a torture site for security forces. She was saved, but by a hair’s breadth.
During the Cabinet clashes between protesters and security that followed in December of that year, a soldier threw a huge rock that missed her head by a few centimeters. “It landed here,” she tells me, pointing to her chest. “And that was my closest brush with death.”
“She was comically brave,” tells Hussein. He recounts, how on January 25, a scrimmage had kicked off between protesters and Central Security Forces officers in downtown Cairo and she was on the front lines.
“The soldiers were using their sticks to beat people, and one soldier was coming to strike her as she was taking pictures. She put the camera down and shouted ‘matedrabsh, matedrabsh’ [don’t beat, don’t beat], which made him hesitate and slightly lower the stick. She then immediately raised her camera and started taking more pictures. Again he raised his arm to strike, again she shouted ‘matedrabsh.’ Again he hesitated, so again she resumed snapping pictures, getting right up in their faces. This happened two or three times, and she thankfully got away with it. She was always single-minded like that in these situations.”
Seven years later, describing the day of the revolution’s anniversary on her Facebook and the hegemonic normalcy that almost effaced it, she wrote: “They say that the past is a foreign country, but January 25 feels like a different planet.”
Around the revolution, she wanted to print Keizer’s graffiti “remember the tomorrow that didn’t come” on her body. Instead, now she has three tattoos: a woman doing a snatch (an olympic weightlifting movement), a star and a parrot.
In parallel to her journalism, Sarah blogged, and her blog posts became her alternative drafts, her un-journalism, or that which could not be printed.
Inanities, her blog, started as a distraction while she was doing her master’s degree. She first justified the time spent on the project as, “writing things of importance and of not, so I can read them later on and remember who I am.” It was also the time when there was a hype around blogging in Egypt about politics and personal issues, a landmark in the country’s cultural history. Sarah was particularly influenced by one blog by Shereen Zaky, where “she wrote about the mundane in very entertaining ways.”
“I was just very conscious of ‘who am I to be writing?’ and ‘who cares what I was doing?’ I didn’t have much to say. I just tried to be funny, mostly amusing myself over anything else.”
“And then there was the descent into politics.” And while that placed her markedly onto a map of bloggers engaged in public matters and a community of online activists in Egypt at the time, again, she is not really sure she was part of that community.
Her posts would, however, be aggregated by Alaa Abd El Fattah, a pioneering figure in Egypt’s blogging and online activism sphere, who is now serving a five-year prison term on charges related to protesting. She would also become friends with other prominent bloggers like Ahmad Gharbeia, Amr Gharbeia and Mostafa Hussein. She would attend the court hearing of Wael Abbas, who became prominent for posting videos of police torture on his blog, where he was charged with damaging an internet cable.
She attributes her ambiguity about belonging to this world to writing in English and to not being fully Egyptian. But the ambiguity may also be a feature of that open-ended publicly engaged community of bloggers, a community that was centered more on the individuals and their expression and less on the collective.
This is how Sarah became known among them. She developed a brand of sarcasm that created a cult out of her blogging. Twice, she impersonated Thomas Friedman as a guest columnist on her blog, saying things like “who will tell Arabs that they have as much talent as young people anywhere? The answer is me. They weren’t wondering about this but I – a middle-aged swindler whose only talent is massacring the English language in unthought-of ways – will tell them anyway, because I was put on this earth to plague Arabs.”
Blogging aside, Sarah mounted multiple other virtual spectacles around her online persona. For example, she dedicated herself to changing her Twitter avatars regularly in a mocking response to the surrounding politics. Public figures like Fayza Aboul Naga and Mostafa Bakry, both opposed to the revolution, earned a time slot on Sarah’s avatar, now branded Avacarr. In 2015, a time when the military’s grip on power was consolidated, backed up by an entire populace of army-philes, she invested in creating an entire Facebook profile for a fictitious Madame Sarah. Born on June 30, 1960, the same day of the military take over 53 years later, Madame Sarah was the persona of an upper-class Zamalek resident, Gezira Club goer and member of a community of army lovers, who Sarah coined, in one of her gems, as mili-tantes. The profile quickly became popular, with 300 people befriending her.
But the time came when Sarah’s online presence ceased to give her pleasure, and she wanted to walk through life more with her body than with her virtual persona.
In our last meeting for this profile, I invited Sarah to come to Mada, which she parted from in 2014, closing off the final chapter, at least for now, in her career in journalism. She wrote about feeling a brief twinge of “what if?” But it was only brief, and while she is happy that Mada, a project whose creation she contributed to, has survived thus far, she is also happy about her parting, to a world she can better grab with her hands.
But I still missed Sarah’s writing, partly because of its uniqueness, and partly because I am still here, in journalism, and more particularly, inside the act of writing, with all that writing reveals, and also erases. I asked her, this time not with the discomforting demand of a boss, but as the writer of her profile, to put into text some of her thoughts on departing from journalism.
Here’s what she gave me back.
Though Sarah’s life today is all about lifting weights, there is a sense of lightness surrounding and emanating from her. It might be the liberation from the loose communities she was in and out of, the human rights, the blogging and the journalism; or the more concerted community that built Mada, on the back of complex human relations and murky attempts to be truly and radically collective. It might be the liberation from the disorientation of writing and narrative as mediators of complex truths.