For a friend in prison: ‘You’

You. The you in absentia. You who is no longer there, and who is there — who I know is there somewhere, I am just not quite sure where. You whom I tried to reach, but failed. You, who I know will be mangled and reshaped by Egyptian bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police. You who is so vividly there in absence. You, who has been locked away. You, whose absence is imprinted on my mind. You, one of the many. One of the numbers. One of the multitude. Yet so particular, concrete and real. Many have come before you and many will come after you. You, swallowed whole, apparently into oblivion, into — temporary? — erasure.

I resist letting your existence sink into oblivion. I cannot. Your face — I grasp it with all my might. Your absence just reasserts your previous presence. I see you when I walk home from work, past an Amsterdam café. I see you sitting on the sofa, us munching together on our second bowl of nachos, and our second round of beers (alcohol-free for me please?). You, the first person who my husband and I told that we were expecting our first baby. You who upon hearing this news, jumped up with such enthusiasm that you nearly knocked over your drink. Your face, your smile — imprinted and re-imprinted in my consciousness in an endless replay of memories. Remembrance of the living, of the one who was and who still is. You who is somewhere.

You, who I taught in a makeshift classroom, with people sleeping in the hallway during Amsterdam University’s student occupation. You, who stayed with us for weeks, discovering to your utter and most profound amazement that individual cats have different personalities. The you who, when we bought our new house, brought us a hamsa ornament from Egypt. You, who wasn’t sure whether to believe in its protective powers, but who liked the look of it anyway. You with whom I hung out in Cairo so many times. You whose enthusiasm and smile was infectious. You, our you, your friends’ you. Shisha, tea, mango juice, rooftops and local ahwas. Images fracture, yet there you are.

The you who dreamed about being here while you were there. The you who, prior to your studies and before your permanent forced departure, was dreaming about a life in Amsterdam. The you with whom I watched the boats on Amsterdam’s canals, dreaming about your future, the one that, in hindsight, it was clear you would not have. The you who dreamed of endless possibilities, and mostly of building a new life upon your departure — a life that visa regulations, job precariousness and racial discrimination would not allow you to have. You who, after we attended a conference, was picked out of the queue at an airport by a British airline employee. You who was then forced to spend the night with friends in London (thank God, they were there). You, the always laughing and cheerful you, who they regarded as “other,” as suspicious.

You who had sold literally everything you loved in order to come here — only to lose it. You, who was forced to return to Egypt, and forced into jobs and a life that you did not want. You, who was confronted — like everyone — with an overwhelming state of collective depression and apathy. Alienation abounded, connecting the personal and the political. You with whom I was afraid to talk, fearful this might endanger you. But that did not matter, the beast ate you nonetheless. You whose image now invokes regret, regret that I was so cautious.

The you that I am now afraid of talking about. I fear that they — the “they” of the system — will hurt you more, or that I’ll harm your spurious case. The you whose fate is precarious. The you whose destiny is unknown. Uncertainty deepens in the coldness of collective indifference. I want to scream and shout your name, yet most of the time I fear to even whisper it.

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