On Sunday morning, our friend, the ghost of spring past, was abducted. For the past six months, Alaa has emerged every morning at 6:01 am outside of the Dokki police station, where he spends 12 hours every night. These are the terms of his 60-month probation. Today, he would have successfully completed 10 percent of it. Alaa, a techie, activist, father and writer, has been in prison for five years. In another four, Alaa will have spent the entirety of his thirties locked up, serving his sentences, full and part time. By 2024, it will have been 10 years since he was convicted of breaking the protest law.
Alaa was taken to the State Security Prosecution headquarters in Fifth Settlement. Mohamed al-Baqer, a human rights lawyer, was also detained when he showed up to attend Alaa’s interrogation. They were both assigned to Case 1356/2019. After hours of waiting, a rushed session concluded with a list of four charges, none of which have been formally confirmed. Despite attempts to report on the case quickly and accurately, what we know is what we are told, and retell. Through relays of words from lawyers and family, we believe the charges are ones commonly fabricated by the authorities: “joining an illegal organization” and “receiving foreign funding” through said organization, “spreading false news” and doing so by “misusing social media.” Both Alaa and Mohamed are being held for 15 days in remand detention. Following the interrogation by prosecutors, they were relocated. Their whereabouts remain unknown today. Families of both men are out looking for them.
A few days ago, together with his son on the playground, Alaa was telling us about climbing a tree. Khaled would run toward a tree, climb up its trunk, feel its bark, get stuck, and not be able to climb down. “Who does he take after?” Alaa asked. The question, largely rhetorical, has to do with the capacity for imagination. Some of it is hereditary, perhaps. We run toward causes, incite revolutions, fall in love. Let’s just say they are all adventures in nature, in our nature.
More so, what happens when one climbs up a tree and can’t get down? More and more, it feels like everyone is stuck in trees. The descent from treetops is an enduring task, both physically and mentally — except for superheroes, perhaps.
Alaa is a comics fan. (We don’t share that interest.) However, in moments like arbitrary detentions, especially when repeated, it inspires something of the fantastical as a means to political imagination. In a simple sense, when someone you love gets arrested or detained in the conditions we are in, in which action is impossible, one can feel their own body split and phantasms emerge. Superhero feelings. Wings grow and hands multiply into mechanical extensions that do many things at once — we become cyborgs, with the quantum sentience of being in many places at once. Teleportation is real; we are in at least two places in an instant. In time, it is unheard of that anyone gets stuck in a tree. For years, we have been drafting plans for cities in treetops, a type of commune: We all live in our own tree houses, together.
Wittgenstein once asked, “What if something really unheard-of happened?” A metaphysical question, which is intended to examine what we would say — or write — or how we would react. (When the unheard of has happened.) A logician and philosopher of mathematics, he imagined how houses would turn into steam, or cows would graze upside down, laugh and speak unintelligibly. In his book, On Certainty (published posthumously in 1969), he also wondered what would happen if trees changed into men, and men into trees. (In mythology it is often women who turn into trees). In a city of people-turned-trees, perhaps in climbing and being stuck, our plight is that of an acrobatic human pyramid, rather than simply a matter of someone being stuck in a tree-tree. We are stuck together, trying to be trees, in some bizarre tower of sorts, scattered. What are trees, and how many are in Cairo, still? Are we them? And are we stuck trying to climb down, trees and each others’ bodies, petrified? This is a different type of arboreality.
This is not normal. It is not normal to accept the current state of things.
An uneasy version of the really unheard-of is really happening in-the-real. Alaa, already serving a post-prison probation sentence, is reimprisoned again. A recursive nightmare, which also entails the illogical abduction of the law itself: Mohamed, a human rights lawyer and director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, founded in 2014 — the same year Alaa was first imprisoned — was also arrested while representing Alaa during his detention.
There is no doubt that this moment is one that has left everyone, including ourselves, in a petrified state, whether we might think of ourselves as entangled masses of people-trees, or, perhaps more simply, as those who have climbed up trees and gotten stuck, amid dense branches, frozen in fear. While the more likely imagination in this scenario is to cry and reach out for a hand to help us climb down or someone to catch us falling, there’s also another solution: Let’s just build treehouses and stay up there. Let’s embrace the arboreal.
We are drafting a tender call for proposals from gifted children with treehouse-building experience, and bird watchers who are hobby engineers.