We are okay. Or at least we think so.
As we clean up the mess left behind by the events of the past week, and as we slowly ease back into the publishing process, we offer a Detox inspired by the spirit of solidarity displayed by Mada’s team throughout this extended moment of uncertainty. And for this week’s Chit-Chat, we speak with and among ourselves, because we need to try and understand what happened, remind ourselves that we’re together, and reassure each other that we’re safe — that we’re still here.
To read this week, here are a few reflections by members of Mada’s team:
Early Saturday morning: I’m all alone in the house on my first day off in a long time. I reach for Iman Mersal’s In Pursuit of Inayat al-Zayat. I’ve just found out that Shady Zalat has been taken from his home by security forces. I have to head to my son’s school for a parents’ meeting, and I do so as I follow news of the incident online. Steadily and politely, I speak to the teachers. One of them discusses Ram’s Arabic skills with me, then she drops the bomb: “He needs additional tutoring,” she says.
I reject her suggestion. “You can pay closer attention to him at school, and we’ll do the same at home.”
I ponder this dilemma. Language is difficult for adults and children alike. A few days ago, we started writing a story we made up together. I’ve actually noticed that, in comparison to English, Arabic is sometimes incomprehensible to him. He knows the letters, but he can’t pronounce their combinations as words; they scatter on his tongue. The diacritics confuse the little one. To get over that, we started writing the story. I wanted to tell the teacher about it: “A Man Who Plants Strange Things.”
I continue reading Inayat’s story as told by Iman Mersal. No, this is inaccurate. Iman is actually telling the story of her pursuit of Inayat’s. The first thread is her grave. Iman finds an obituary: “In memory of the late Inayat Abbas al-Zayat — With hearts filled with patience and faith, the family remembers the unforgettable person she was, today at the late Rashid al-Afifi Pasha’s tomb.” She finds the first trace to the grave in 2015, but doesn’t actually reach it until 2018, i.e.: 160 pages later.
Saturday evening: I am still alone, adapting to my fear. The dog is very quiet today. He approaches me, asking to play, and we do, for a bit. I am more depleted than you are, dear dog.
After resting for a while, I go to the gym. Over the past three years, I’ve learned that weight-lifting also lifts burdens. The shape of my body has changed, and my anxiety has lightened significantly.
When I’m done, I don’t feel like seeing anyone. I go back to the book, and when the force of sleep comes over me I decide not to set an alarm and to rely on my biological clock. Or, to be more precise, my anxiety’s ability to control my body (ordering it awake) is more dependable.
Sunday Morning: I go on reading. Iman is looking for maps of Dokki, in search of a specific street off of a square called Astra in the neighborhood, where Inayat’s house used to be. After a long time, she realized the name of the street had been changed. I find Inayat al-Zayat’s Love and Silence, the only novel by the author, who died at 25. I decide to pack it in my suitcase; I’m supposed to join my wife and son in Port Said today (we’re set to come back to Cairo tonight or tomorrow). I put off reading the novel until I’m there, but as for Iman’s pursuit, I place it in my tote bag to continue reading it while still in Cairo. I decide not to take my laptop, I will jot down notes inside the book itself, for the first time. I skip breakfast, thinking I’ll wait until I meet the team and eat with them.
Sunday afternoon: I get over my fear and head to our office in Dokki. In an attempt at reassurance, I tell myself I won’t stay for long. But later, at exactly 1:30, I discover that all my predictions have failed.
The first thing that comes to mind when they storm the office is parkour. In two days, state security prosecution will announce that the raid took place based on a search warrant that was issued as part of investigations in a case we still don’t yet know anything about. But now, as we wait for the rest of our colleagues to arrive, we suddenly find ourselves held here by security forces against our will. In parkour, you’re trained to climb from one point to the next with no tools and at super speed. It was originally developed from military obstacle course training, and it is my son who first alerted me to the importance of having that skill. I have actually contacted an instructor months ago, but we never started training because the closest training location to me was Giza Square, which was still far. Later, I found another spot near our house, but they won’t start until next summer. If I’d managed to train and master parkour, I think now, I might have been able to escape.
I come back to reality to the inescapable situation, fully aware of my powerlessness. Again, I reach for Iman’s book.
We are held in the office for four hours. This is perhaps the longest we’ve spent together in this space. I know this is not accurate, but this is how heavy it feels. I am not asked any questions; I am a hostage of a silent detention. We are asked not to speak, and to stay in the newsroom. They are waiting too. They glance at their watches and phones and every now and then we see and hear them speak. Meanwhile, we are forced to remain silent.
A long time to spend without a phone, without any sense of time. The half hour they told us they would be staying has long passed. Time stretches, heavy and forbidding — six more half hours pass in ten-minute intervals: each time we ask who those state representatives who stormed our office and suddenly controlled it were, or for a glass of water, or to go to the bathroom, or to open a window, we are not given answers, but the same sentence: “We’ll be out of here in ten minutes.”
A while later they bring us a few glasses and water bottles, and they allow us to go to the bathroom. When it is my turn to go, I study the bathroom window and the possibility of escaping through the back alley. Such a shame that I never got to practicing parkour.
Back to the book. “I guessed that the Egyptian National Library wasn’t okay with it being said that a writer had committed suicide because they had rejected her manuscript. Perhaps some art and culture journalists had also found out because of Nadia Lotfy’s ensuing nervous breakdown. People from the library called Inayat’s family in an attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility, or to simply save face.” I recount this part of Iman’s narrative to Mohamed Hamama, even though the guards had ordered us not to speak. I continue reading Nadia Lotfy’s account to Iman Mersal. The first call from the library took place on January 3, 1963, and they said the novel was unfit for publishing. Then, after Inayat’s death, they called again to say that what they had rejected was “the translation submitted by Azima (Inayat’s sister, who had translated the novel from German).”
Instead of the notes I’d planned to take to help me when writing a review about the book, I started to scribble messages inside. In case I am taken, I will leave it in the office, in the hope that it will reach my wife and son.
Inayat faced and overcame major challenges in her life. She fought a battle for divorce in court. In one petition for appeal her lawyer writes: “In Egypt’s personal status law, a woman isn’t a person, she is part of the husband’s property.”
The heavy hours end abruptly, and we move to the real danger. They leave, taking three of us with them. The newsroom is back to normal: producing news. I shut the book.
Later, we make sure everyone is free and okay. We don’t know how we will get past the experience.
After a few long calls and brisk meetings, I play with Ram for a bit, we work on the draft of his story, then we go to his bed. He demands a new story and I tell him one.
Fear and anxiety will haunt the house for a while, we know this.
Monday morning: I continue reading at home, pursuing Inayat along with Iman.
Fissures of absurdity
By Sharif Abdel Kouddous
Having our office occupied by men with guns was no laughing matter. The initial moments after they forced their way in, snatching phones, closing laptops, and making us stand against the wall in silence, were, for me, the most terrifying. The state’s enforcers had finally come and, within minutes, had taken over Mada — our sanctuary — with an air of menacing entitlement.
And yet, there were moments of laughter: Moments of unbridled mirth that cut through the whispering silence and penetrated all the possibilities and impossibilities of what was happening to us and what might lay in store.
As we were being corralled into the newsroom, Hossam had received word of the raid outside. He notified his colleagues, left his phone, and quickly came to place himself under siege alongside us. He strolled casually into the office, glancing around like a man sauntering through a dinner party on the lookout for a passing tray of hors d’oeuvres. He entered the newsroom and addressed us with a breezy, “Bonjour ya shabab.” We erupted into peals of laughter. The security agents glared and shushed us. They were fuming.
There were other moments.
Yasmin — who had bravely saved us by sending a message to her partner that informed the world about the raid despite a massive security agent trying to grab at her phone — couldn’t find her national ID card, and was rummaging through her bag while that same agent towered over her. She gave up and handed over the only picture ID she could find — her Gezira Club card. Not exactly appropriate, but at least it was classy.
Rose passed the time creating an origami fortune teller, with options like “Will you get your phone back?” and “Will you stay here all night?” A security agent spotted her and demanded to see what she was writing. When she showed him the folded paper game, his smug expression fell. Giggles followed him out of the room.
Hossam, speaking too often, was ordered to go to the far end of the adjacent room and sit on a bright orange bean bag. He walked over and plopped himself down the only way one can on a bean bag: languidly. And loudly. Settled in, he lit a cigarette and immediately began talking to the France 24 crew.
Wael, somehow bothered most by the paternalistic treatment we were being subjected to (as opposed to the threat of interrogation and prison) quietly protested by standing near the front, reading Iman Mersal’s latest book.
Lina passed around oriental sweets she had bought that morning in Amman, as though we were gathered for lunch, not being held hostage in our office.
These were only moments. Mostly we worried about what was to come; but they punctured the pervasive tension and sense of foreboding that threatened to overwhelm us. Even though these men with guns had taken control of our physical space and our bodies, a tiny part of their power cracked every time we laughed, opening fissures into which the sheer absurdity of our plight poured through.
How to elude anxiety
By The Orange Cat
I set the alarm for 8:30 am. I have to make an urgent phone call. I must contact customer service to change the dimensions of the mattress I ordered, which is set to arrive today.
The day before I was at al-Ghouriya, buying a kilim for my new apartment. I found one with a pattern that I liked, but it was 1 x 1.5 meters. Too small. I asked the salesman if it was available in a larger size, and he brought out one that was 2 x 3 meters. Too big. I hesitated. I took another round in the market, then returned to him. I couldn’t decide which to pick, the big one or the small one. Then I made up my mind. I bought the big one and told myself it’ll be good to cover up the tile floor in the winter, and if it’s too large for the living room I’ll just put the couch and the desk over it, no big deal.
At home I discovered that what I thought would be too large was actually too small; the rug barely covered half the space. I won’t make the same mistake with the mattress, I told myself. I had bought a tape measure, and carried out very meticulous calculations, based on which I was going to determine the size of the bed. Taking the room’s dimensions, however, is a very complicated process. The wall against which the bed would be placed is slightly tilted, and there’s also a column in the corner that makes for 10 centimeters I need to account for when measuring. Ten centimeters — the difference between 140 and 150, 150 and 160, and double the difference between 120 and 140. What size do I want my bed to be?
I wake up grumpily at 8:30. I only slept four hours. I scroll through Facebook to help jump-start my brain. Why is a picture of Shady suddenly Mada’s profile cover? My bewilderment lasts less than a second; I figure it out before my eyes had moved to the actual statement. I rush to the kitchen. I come back and throw the phone on the couch, as though getting rid of it. I pace the living room. I sit on the floor. I reach for my phone again. Back to the kitchen. I fill the kettle with water. I don’t pour it. I return to the couch. My heart is racing. I try to sleep — the thoughts running through my head don’t let me. I open his Mada profile to see what they’ll find when they go through it. Shady has written about Kathem al-Saher and Ahmad Khalid Tawfik. Good. One hour later, I call one of my colleagues, who tells me he’s driving around purposely in his car because he doesn’t know what else to do.
I felt like my head was going to burst, thinking about what would happen. A splitting headache. I’ll break down if I think. I won’t think. I’ll obsess over the dimensions of the mattress instead. Had I made the right choice when I decided to buy a small one? Or was I going to regret it later? The mattress was going to be the one thing I owned in the apartment for a while, perhaps a long one. It was a momentous decision. Do I really need a bedside table? My anxiety is trying to trap me, so I trap myself in a tiny detail that swallows it all up. To kill my anxiety, I need it to manifest in something: a punching bag I can take out all my energy on. I can’t be anxious now, I can’t afford to break down. Not now at least, not when I don’t have a home. I will convince myself that figuring out the right dimensions for the mattress is the most important thing in the world, the most urgent decision of all, one that I can easily regret if I don’t make it with caution.
I was supposed to go out to buy sheets and pillows and a duvet, but I didn’t go. I sat on the couch all day, refreshing my email every 20 minutes and Mada’s Facebook page every half hour, and in between going through online marketplace posts selling used couches and bamboo chairs. The new house was entirely empty; I told myself I was going to buy one of those hanging swings that had suddenly started popping up in Cairo’s cafes. Hours later, I finally called customer service. They blamed me for changing the dimensions of the mattress and told me they would call me later to take the new ones. They didn’t, and neither did I. They forgot me for two days, during which the Mada office was raided and three more of my colleagues were arrested. I wasn’t there. Earlier, I’d asked our chief editor to put off the meeting for a couple of hours because I had somewhere to be at 1.30, and she’d reassured me that we wouldn’t start on time anyway and I was bound to catch up with them. But I didn’t. I spent the entire day in a cafe nearby. I wasn’t right in the midst of the anxiousness — I was nearby, on its outskirts.
The anxiety I experienced over those two days wasn’t over when I found out that all four of them were back home safe. It was stored within my body, still. I went back to thinking about the mattress, the rug, the cutlery I need to buy. I still didn’t know if changing the size of the mattress was the right move, because then the bedside table might get in the door’s way. Big risk. The bedside table is the only piece of furniture the apartment came with, and I didn’t want to give it up.
My mind wanted to escape. It felt like the end of the world. I needed a house so I could break down inside it while feeling safe, at least.
On Thursday I went to the Mada office with the rest of my colleagues. I was happy to be back, going in and out of each room, spending some time on every couch. The house had been reclaimed successfully.
I changed the size of the mattress, finally. The world won’t crumble if I don’t have a bedside table.
I spent three years of my life in a military school, because it was the only secondary school in the governorate where I lived.
Military schools don’t differ much from other schools except when it comes to the uniform, the military education curriculum, and the punishment inflicted on those who are late for the morning assembly, which was often decided based on the whims of the school’s military commander, or the soldiers who served there. Have you ever started your day by crawling on a badly paved school playground in a rural town? Well, some people have.
We took one or two military education classes per week, which were given in special classrooms, not the regular ones where we were taught everything else. The walls of those special rooms were decorated with posters displaying the history of the Egyptian military, in addition to information like the number of stars and shoulder slides and their corresponding ranks. We’d sit there with no one speaking to us; our only two options, as relayed by the soldier in charge, were to remain silent or be registered absent on the attendance sheet — a threat which was the only reason we stayed in the room. We’d try to comply, often teetering on the edge of failure. Just when we’re about to descend into noise, he’d threaten us with taking our names off the sheet, or with a punishment of no-hands push-ups, so we’d slide back into silence. Forty-five minutes of illogical torture.
The silence is suddenly disrupted by our colleague asking if she could call her children’s school to inform them that she wouldn’t be able to pick up her children — it looks like today’s class will be longer than usual. The soldier doesn’t respond, but he sends another colleague to a far corner after he tells a joke that makes everyone laugh. I futilely try to fill the emptiness that ensues by asking another soldier: “Are you going to tell us which entity sent you?” He sarcastically answers, as though I’d ask him what rank one shoulder bar and three stars correspond to: “Did you ever go to school? If you did, you should be able to guess.” I fall silent once again and wait for my turn to go to the bathroom, after asking the soldier’s permission, of course. I spend my time gazing at the new pictures on the wall: one of the Journalists’ Syndicate, and another of Audrey Hepburn.
Even though I’d always been a good student academically, I never liked being trapped in school for so many hours every day. To this day I feel a pang in my chest each time I pass by a school on the street. I spent my school years studying and getting full marks, but also counting the years I had left to graduate. That’s why I’m always pissed off when people say they wish they could go back to those days.
Of course, this endless military education class was not over when the soldiers left, taking my friends to an unknown location. But I was lucky enough that they were back soon, and that we all eventually left the classroom (detention room?) together. We know we have a long semester ahead of us, but my classroom is beautiful, my classmates even more so — that’s why I never felt heavy returning to it. I actually felt relieved.
I don’t have a specific answer as to why I practice journalism. I only know that I love what I do, or so I think. The meaning of the profession, for me, has evolved over the years. At first it was a way of engaging with reality, an engagement that aspired to impact, even if in limited, modest forms. In recent years, however, it has become synonymous with being a witness. Journalism allows those who practice it that constant position as a witness to what’s happening, a position that is vastly different from being a viewer or a spectator. A witness stands somewhere between action and observation, between immersion and detachment, between being at the center of an event or remaining on its periphery. Managing distance becomes everything, the main key to the game — if we can call it that.
I was standing in the street near the office, sending voice messages to some of my colleagues who were not being detained upstairs with updates of what I was seeing: “The lawyer has arrived, but he is unable to enter, security is stopping him,” “A microbus has left carrying Lina Attalah, Mohamed Hamama, and Rana Mamdouh, some of us are trying to find out where it’s headed,” “Friends have seen the microbus enter the Dokki Police Station, the lawyer and some Journalists’ Syndicate members are heading there now.”
A friend told me that my voice in those messages sounded like that of a neutral reporter following some random news. I listened to the messages again, only to realize that my tone really doesn’t change from one message to the next. It was the same in all of them; steady and controlled. I hadn’t noticed that I’d followed the rules of the witness game this time too: Stand and witness, create a distance between you and the event in order to protect your position — in order to stare a crisis in the face and not be able to recognize it.
In times of crisis, your mind fumbles to find a comfort zone to revert to. In my case, that safe space was the position of the witness.
I’d been on auto-pilot ever since Shady’s arrest, moving without allowing any real emotions the space to seep in. Then the raid happened and everyone inside was detained, a fate I managed to avoid because I was 10 minutes late. And so I remained on auto-pilot mode until Monday evening, when the Mada team got together in celebration of our survival. During the first half of the night, we listened to the same story from 30 different perspectives, to laugh and laugh and laugh. Before all our bubbles of illusion burst at once, and the distance we’d created constricted, so that each of us came to discover the feelings of fear and worry and confusion and shock, multiplied in the number of our staff members. The distance vanishes, the witness loses his safe vantage point, and realizes that he was never really a witness to begin with, and that that artificial space cannot protect him this time.
On Wednesday we try, with difficulty, to go back to the office. We need to put everything back in place after all had been scattered. We need to find out what had been taken and what remained. But, most importantly, we need to test our ability to be in the office. One of the most normal, most mundane acts of our daily life had suddenly become a risk that required mustering all the courage we had to manage it. We do go, but I can’t bring myself to stay longer than two hours, so I leave.
Thursday comes, the day we’re set to officially reopen the office by receiving a large number of friends and supporters over breakfast. We go in with a large force behind us; this time a radiant, joyous force, one we’d discovered in all its glory the day of the raid. That force clears the space of the past days’ ghosts, temporarily, at least. A lot of stories, a lot of “welcome back” and “thank God you’re safe” followed by a lot of laughter, as though we’d just returned from somewhere. Shady is back in the office, too, and his first comments are about how the news pieces published in his absence were phrased. We laugh again, as though in a group therapy session. This time I am able to stay longer. I realize that losing my position as a witness is not bad this time. I leave the office wondering whether we survived. There is no clear answer. We will find out next week, and in the weeks that follow. We live in a perpetual “maybe.” We live in a fluctuating reality, coarse and violent — we’re not really sure how we’re going to deal with it, whether the distance of being witnesses would ever work again.
I was sitting in an apartment on the outskirts of Giza with two colleagues. I’d been late for our meeting at Mada’s office, and right before I went up I found out about the raid. That was at 2pm last Sunday. I was gripped by fear of the unknown, and the questions came pouring into my head as the hours passed with my Mada teammates still held inside. What were they doing to them? Would any attempts to help change what had already been ordained? How do I face imprisonment, if that is determined to be the fate of everyone involved?
Then I found out about the arrest of three of my colleagues. That’s when I wondered if it was the end. What do I do now? Influenced by my coverage of countless political cases, my mind was convinced this was going to be a mass attack.
I asked my colleague what he thought, and he told me it would be a good idea if I left the house where we were and went to stay somewhere safe. But then he said: “Someone might be waiting downstairs.” I was consumed by powerlessness and anxiety once more. But I took a taxi to the house where I’d decided to spend the night; those moments of terror felt like forever.
I resorted to my old method of dealing with bad situations: imagining the worst-case scenario and asking myself whether I would be able to handle it. Perhaps I would realize that I can actually deal with it, and my mind would calm a little. I recalled when I got 80 percent in my secondary school finals. I was upset for a while, then I started thinking: what’s the worst that could happen? I won’t be able to join the Faculty of Mass Communication? Alright then, I won’t — let’s think of an alternative route that might prove to be better in the long run.
But right now the worst-case scenario was a lot more difficult to fathom. I might not get a heavy sentence, I might not be tortured, but what about my work in journalism and everything that I was learning? If Mada ended, it would signal the end of free journalism in Egypt. That was the most disturbing of all.
When I heard about Shady’s release, then Lina’s, Hamama’s and Rana’s, my relief was temporary. It lasted until the next day, when I read the news about the state security prosecution’s accusation that Mada was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood. I entered into a state of uncertainty; I couldn’t tell whether we were still in danger. I am uneasy with the idea of uncertainty, even though it colors many aspects of life around us. I hate confusion, especially when it’s tinged with predictions of a future that doesn’t look so bright. When you’re in the grip of anxiety, you can’t control the irrational scenarios that you keep envisioning.
The news of the accusation was a bit of a shock in a rough moment that grew even more intense when one of the state’s mouthpieces announced his intention to “reveal secrets” of Mada’s connection to the Muslim Brotherhood on his show.
Until I saw the episode.
I laughed, and finally felt real relief seep in. Back to the state of calmness that I love.
-And, in conclusion of our Read section, we leave you with a story about Radwan al-Habib:
After following all available published news, Radwan spent the rest of the day in a numbed trance, going through the motions of visiting an elderly relative, and being sent off to distract himself at a local thrift store, where he binge-shopped under bright fluorescent lights and among crowds of the poor, the foreign, the eccentric. Everything felt surreal.
Early the next morning, Radwan asked his grandmother to pray for Shady as she left for church, then got online to check for updates. The raid on Mada’s office was taking place at that very moment. Radwan felt as though time stood still, as though reality had been suspended while the raid’s outcome remained unknown.
When his grandmother returned, Radwan read her the details, tweet by tweet, peppered with quotes from articles and posts. She couldn’t grasp the arbitrary and absurd abuses of power, like tales of ghouls and goblins wreaking havoc in unheard-of lands far away. His rising panic was tempered by the sad and sobering reality of his obsessively reading tweets to a 93-year-old woman resting at home between church and bingo.
Just where in the world were they, Radwan wondered, if anywhere?
We recommend one film, one video essay and a couple of YouTube channels that helped us remain as calm as possible in the aftermath:
[The only reason we’re recommending this in Watch is that our Read section is full to the brim this week, but you should definitely read the novel too].
Every night this past week, ever since I found out about Shady’s arrest on Saturday, I would distract myself at night — in order to calm my racing thoughts and, eventually, fall asleep — by reading in bed, in the muted light of my phone’s flashlight (in an attempt not to wake my husband, who, I tell myself, deserves a good night’s sleep after dealing with my anxiety all day). James Baldwin is what I would read — he is my hero and my saint of choice, the one I go to in times like this. I also read James Baldwin in September, when protests cracked the silence and the prisons filled up, and I was far from Cairo and beside myself with worry and excitement and things I still can’t define.
James Baldwin knows. And in Barry Jenkins’ 2018 adaptation of his beautiful and poignant 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, it’s clear just how much he knows about imprisonment, about injustice, and about the toll it takes on those of us left outside when loved ones are inside.
Of course there’s so much in the film (and the book) that is particular to the African-American experience, and I do not mean to appropriate that. But so much there is also relatable to what we’ve been experiencing here for years, which was, in my consciousness, condensed in the events of the past week.
“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” says the protagonist, Tish, in one of the film’s early scenes. This is how we are introduced to her dilemma: she is a 19-year-old black woman whose fiance, Fonny, is arrested for a crime he did not commit, as a result of vindictive scheming by a racist white police officer. To further complicate things, Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child. Her family and his — who are by no means rich — are struggling to gather funds for a lawyer; the only person who can bear witness to his innocence is arrested, too, and is being coerced into changing his testimony; and the woman manipulated to accuse him of her rape has been made to leave the country by the prosecutors.
In its portrayal of Tish and Fonny’s predicament, the film offers a searing look not only into systemic racism, but also the twisted mechanisms of a rigged justice system, and even the nature of sexual assault as experienced by its victims. Although we are subjected to certain aspects of Fonny’s life in prison, it is not really the center of the film. Rather, the love that binds the young, once-hopeful couple and the solidarity in which it’s manifested is the heart of the story. That, and the weight Tish has to carry as she takes it upon herself to fight for her lover’s freedom, all the while showing him no trace of her own fear or doubt.
Although Jenkins (who co-wrote and directed the 2016 masterpiece Moonlight), somewhat softens the edges of Baldwin’s narrative, his rendition of the story remains powerful. The film is stunningly poetic, in visual terms, and a moving, layered soundtrack by Nicholas Britell (who also composed the music for Moonlight) perfectly encapsulates the tension and tenderness that run through it in equal measure.
If Beale Street Could Talk is available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
By sheer coincidence, last week’s episode of The Nerdwriter, a YouTube series of diverse and engaging video essays about works of film and TV, was about the dramatization of the journalistic process in the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015. The video also offers a quick overview of the different ways journalists (particularly investigative reporters) have been represented in Hollywood, from the silent film era through 70s classics such as All the Presidents’ Men, all the way to Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017). You can watch the episode below.
What would you think of while you’re under siege? Probably walking, walking for a long, long time. You’d probably think of everything that’s outside, every other place that’s not here, the places you can’t reach right now. When you’re under siege you’re trapped inside yourself, eaten by anxiety, so you’re imprisoned within your own mind, in addition to your physical confinement. When you’re under siege you think of being outside of yourself. The videos recommended here are meant to help us do that: get out — out of time, out of our bodies, out of our internal prison where we’re trapped by our fear — and take a deep breath.
What’s happening outside?
A friend asks me why vloggers often make videos in their cars. At first I thought maybe it’s because we’re in Egypt and filming on the street isn’t the wisest of choices right now, while at home there are families and things happening. But the truth is filming in cars is a global trend, that state of filming while driving and simultaneously expressing a very important opinion about a certain issue, eyes on the road, gives off a feeling of control and a certain badassery. It makes you feel that the person doesn’t really care about the video they’re recording, or that it’s not a priority at least; they’re just doing it casually, as though the camera just happened to be on so they decided to say something. These vlogs imply a sort of desire to break free of purpose.
Car vlogs are part of “cruising culture,” driving with no destination. While cruising, we can just keep going around and around then turn and head back right where we started, or choose specific places to cruise because the road is spacious and beautiful. Cruising is a soothing activity, it includes an implicit admission that we’re in no rush to get anywhere. An activity that embraces its lack of aim or ambition.
In the videos on this channel, the vlogger drives — and sometimes walks — around the streets of different cities, with no specific destination. Play the videos on a large screen, or even on your laptop, and don’t think of anything. Allow it to unfold before you. Let someone walk on behalf of you and walk beside them, in silence and purposelessness.
The farthest possible place
When you’re anxious your thoughts chase you. They hunt you down, and you either run from or towards them. You’re tired, drained and afraid. Don’t try to chase them. Calm down. Stop running and stand in your place. Running won’t get you anywhere. All you need is stillness, and the knowledge that — at least somewhere else — everything is okay.
There’s something reassuring about rain — something that tells us that it’s alright, the world is still as we used to know it. There’s something comforting in knowing that you’re very small, that you’re not really responsible for anything. You hide from the rain, you watch it from behind a window, you run beneath it like a child. Rain comes from a place that is beyond us, beyond our inner world. We have no control over it. It tells you that the external world exists, with or without you. You are light. Invisible and insignificant. This is sad, but it’s also liberating. Do not carry the weight of the world, there’s nothing to be guilty about.
YouTube is filled with relaxing videos where the camera is fixed on a certain landscape and is left rolling for hours with pouring rain, rolling waves, running water. Somewhere in the world, something is happening — something other than that which is eating you up right now.
Play those rain and waterfall videos, and make sure your speakers are on. Turn down the lights, close your eyes. Tell yourself that you’re not that important, at least for now.
As you read through this exceptional Detox, listen to a playlist put together by Ahmed al-Sabbagh, inspired by the wide range of feelings that consumed us this past week:
Instead of hosting a guest this week, as we usually do, we chatted with some members of Mada’s team about the strangest thoughts they had since the detention of our colleagues, the raid of our office and the eventual release of Shady Zalat, Lina Attalah, Mohamed Hamama and Rana Mamdouh. We also tried to talk about the future.
What was the first thing you thought of when you heard about Shady or realized we were being raided?
Yasmine Zohdi was late to the office for the meeting that coincided with the raid. She starts by talking about her tardiness:
My first reaction was an overwhelming feeling of guilt that my usual lateness was how I escaped a moment the rest of my more punctual colleagues didn’t and were thus now locked up inside. I am always late; my sense of time is completely off. And so I’m used to feeling anxious almost every time I’m heading to the office, because I’m usually late to a meeting or anything else. But this time it was a different sort of anxiety. I was entering the street when I received Mostafa’s email warning everyone not to come to the office. For a second I thought of ignoring the message and going up anyway. I sent so many messages in the same moment. As I realized that there are others who had also not made it to the office, I started to calm down a bit. I planned to meet them and discuss what to do. I started to reason with myself that it’s a good thing that not all of us are at the office; that would have been a bigger problem.
What consumed me over the next few hours — aside, of course, from the attempt to confirm who was and who wasn’t at the office — was the question of whether I was at the right place at that very moment; was I doing the right thing or not? I guess these were precipitations of my guilt; if I was not up there with them, I should at least be doing something to help. When the day was over and Shady, Lina, Hamama and Rana were released, I continued to think of that inside/outside delineation. Those were the two words I said and heard the most that day: Who is inside? Who is outside? What does it even mean to be inside or outside? Was there anyone who could even be considered outside at that moment?
I don’t mean to equate my experience with that of those who were actually in the office, or those who were taken later and definitely, definitely not with Shady’s. But neither I nor the others who were with me felt like we were “outside.” For hours, we remained suspended in a space beyond that binary, in some sort of limbo — neither locked up with the rest at the office nor able to move as we normally would. We were completely stuck in the moment. I couldn’t envision the next hour, nor was I able to go back in time and imagine a different course for the day — for of course, deep inside us we’ve been expecting this to happen for a long time. I feel that, in a way, I am still that state of limbo — not inside, but not entirely outside either.
Fathi el-Shekh joins in, saying:
I thought of how the families would receive the news if that nightmare were to continue. As I looked at my colleagues, I saw each of them try and reassure me with a small smile. Even the youngest among them. I was grateful to be with them.
Osama Youssef, who was among those held at the office, reflects:
After the initial shock of the storming of the office and handing over our laptops and phones to the officers, they locked us up in our sad newsroom. Then I started regaining my confidence. I was thinking that sooner or later, people outside would know what’s going on. Foreign and Arab papers and websites will report on this. They can’t possibly take any of us, I reassured myself; the most they would do is take our devices, they can’t risk putting themselves in such a situation. In fact, I had not even expected them to show up at the office at all after the reaction to Shady’s detention; can they even imagine what would happen if they were to raid the office and detain the journalists?
When Hossam told us that the news of the raid was everywhere, I started to feel safer. I wanted people outside not to worry about us and to know that everything will be fine. Of course these self-reassurances came crashing down when they took Lina, Hamama and Rana. After they left, I was stunned by the media and online reaction, which was much bigger than I had anticipated. There was even a small demonstration outside the office downstairs. One way or another those thoughts that I used to reassure myself were right (maybe?) and Shady was released, followed by the other three. And it passed.
On the day of the raid, Israa Awad told a friend before heading to the office: “Be worried if I’m not back from the office in an hour.” She recounts:
I had left Mada’s kitten at home. He is an orange tabby, only a couple of weeks old (we’re not releasing his name, by the way). I had left him hoping that I would be back in an hour to feed him again as he has to be fed every three hours. I didn’t really expect them to come to the office. I was telling a colleague of mine that this could never happen. I feel that it’s been so long since that day — as if time froze in that moment. When I eventually went back home, it had been more than 6 hours since I’d left the kitten.
Waad Ahmed arrived to the office as the raid was starting. She says:
As soon as I saw the officers, I was immediately concerned for those inside. I wanted to know who was in there, to make sure they were fine. Of course I was concerned for the safety of my colleagues, but it is the typical look and arrogance of the state officers that made me feel sick. It feels better to be with those you care about instead of hearing their news from somewhere else. I know this rationale is flawed and lacking but that was how I felt. Even though, strategically speaking, being outside would have been more helpful and useful, as we could have helped spread the news, the emotional choice was to be inside.
Habiba Effat was abroad but this was her first thought upon hearing the news:
I thought of the smokers; whether they would allow them to smoke at least.
We reassure Habiba: Yes, they were allowed to smoke even though, on normal days, it’s prohibited in the newsroom.
How do you see the future now?
Yasmine Zohdi says:
In general I think a lot about the future. Not in the greater sense of the word but about my plans for tomorrow and the like. It’s one of the symptoms of my anxiety — that I’m unable to live in the moment; I either think of things that happened or things that will happen. When security forces left the office and we found out that they took Lina, Hamama and Rana, my mind drifted to the next day and I tried to imagine what I would do, where we would be. And I couldn’t see anything. That was a little terrifying. We were prisoners of the moment, prisoners of that limbo.
Saturday, when I learned about Shady, was a very difficult day — worrying about him, wondering what he was going through, what we were going to do about that crisis. I couldn’t fathom how we could cope with more days like that, not knowing when they would ever end, worrying about three more of our colleagues. At that moment, I genuinely felt that there was no future and that time had come undone. Of course it’s better now, I’m able to imagine a tomorrow and a day after, and even a next week — but probably not more than that for now.
However, the fact that at least now we are together and can think collectively and reassure one another in the midst of that confusion does make it lighter. And let’s be honest, we were never that sure of anything anyway. I don’t think there’s any real certainty in the world. So be it. We will keep working and exploring together. In all cases, this is the spirit that has always driven us.
Fathi does not see the future clearly, either, which he attributes to the conflicting behavior on the authorities’ side:
I am more focused on today than the future, though. And today feels a little bitter.
Osama Youssef’s view of the future, meanwhile, is as follows:
Totally random. Right now we are happy; we are celebrating a victory, our loved ones are free and that day has passed, at least. Of course, the ceiling of expectations is low, even that release was tied to a phone call that we don’t know much about. That u-turn of the truck also diverted the path of our week from one that could have been very heavy to one of celebration, if not completely free of worry.
At the same time, it was the work of Mada’s members over the past few years that made possible a better fate in these chaotic times. So I am both optimistic and pessimistic.
Israa doesn’t see the darkness, however. She explains:
Despite the damage, I don’t see the future as dark. I feel that no one managed to escape the tension. This is the first time I see some fairness in the situation. Everyone, including those who carried out the raid, was tense and confused. This is comforting somehow — a small form of justice.
And this is how Waad sees the future:
Perseverance from Mada. I have no idea what will happen later but I know that despite all the fear and anxiety over our safety, there is a feeling of gratitude for the persistence and determination of the team. We should not live our lives as though we are dead. We’re alive and we’re here.